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The Parker Family Circus

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Is every family a circus? Maybe, maybe not, but Jan Buttram definitely wants you to believe the Parker family is. So, she's titled her new play The Parker Family Circus. If you want to see whether she's right or not, go to the Blue Heron Arts Center and judge for yourself. Personally, though, I'm less than sure.

The play, directed by Taylor Brooks, depicts the five-member family, headed by a matriarch known simply as Mamaw, played by Rita Gardner. Her husband, Papaw, naturally, died a few months previously, and she's having difficulty holding the family together. Both her son Don (Michael Pemberton) and his wife Lottie (Carole Monferdini) are too wrapped up in their own affairs (he a union job, she a position as a school guidance counselor and would-be real estate magnate) to pay much attention to their two children.

Of them, Polly (Lori Gardner) is fairly close to being an average, mostly superficial 16-year-old girl, complete with an enterprising friend in Vesta (the very funny Debbie Jaffe). Her brother, Tommy (Bryan Schany) is more problematic, with a permanent IQ of 80, and some unhealthy notions about relationships (primarily with his grandmother). He needs more help than his immediate family is capable of providing.

Each of the actors give strong (if basic) performances, Brooks handles the staging well on James F. Wolk's beautiful set, and some parts of the play are very funny.

But overall, something's missing in The Parker Family Circus. Buttram tries hard - maybe too hard - to set up the chaos of the family's life, but doesn't fill in a lot of the blanks in between. Most of his characters, then, seem all too familiar: The busy mother, the uptight father, the spacey daughter and her friend, the young man too interested in sex.

Rita Gardner's Mamaw, as the show's centerpiece, is the most balanced and strongly written, the most believable as a complete person. Each of the other characters is less fully developed, which robs the play's conclusion of what potential impact it might have. Throwing comic books and overturning furniture is fine sometimes, but here it feels tacked on. Unfortunately, so does the family meeting near the end of the show, when everyone is finally in the same room at the same time. But because we don't really know much about these people, who cares?

So, when it comes to The Parker Family Circus, we're left with watching and identifying with the one person we're allowed to care about. It's not that Mamaw's not interesting and fun - she is. But there's a problem with a circus if you're most interested in watching the ringmaster.

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The Parker Family Circus
Blue Heron Arts Center, 123 East 24th Street
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 206-1515
Through March 3
Running Time: Approximately two hours, ten minutes with one intermission