Throughout the last several decades family life in America has changed. What happens to the children when parents are just too busy? These questions have been dogging our political and social environment of late, and Ellen Melaver attempts to address them in her new play, The Right Way to Sue, now playing at HERE.
Though the subject matter is serious, Melaver sought to use comedy to make the ugliness of the parents who frequently lose their baby more palatable. It only occasionally works.
The setup suggests comic brilliance in the making. Maggie (Jennifer Morris) and Tom (Kelly AuCoin) are the two very busy parents of a newborn baby, that try as they might, they can't keep from losing. Maggie most recently left the baby in the cheese case at Zabar's, where a young woman, Sue (Stephanie Brooke), found it and thoughtfully returned it to its owner. Maggie and Tom, however, are late for an important meeting, and with the babysitter late, they allow Sue to stay with the baby. Sue obliges, but when the parents return, babysitter and baby are nowhere to be found. A note left behind leads Maggie and Tom on a trip to a strange land where anything can, and does, happen: New Jersey.
The first fifteen or twenty minutes suggest the show will be bitingly funny and insightful all the way through, but this does not turn out to be the case. Though Melaver does make a few good points about the depths of parental responsibilities and perceptions, she relies on familiar plot machinations and by-the-numbers comedy, which dulls any message she may really want to present.
The net result is, by the time the second act starts, the show feels far more shallow than meaningful, a situation which has not been improved when the show ends. Instead of cause for reflection about the way we regard our own families, we are left with little more than outlined characters, ridiculous (and overly obvious) plot developments, and a denouement that seems to spring more from Melaver's desire to bring the story to a close than to truly complete it.
The actors do their best, but the material gives them few chances to shine. Morris's cold attitude plays well, but never cracks enough to let us see the warmth inside. AuCoin is generally better, but can do little with some of the bizarre character changes and revelations Tom must go through. T.R. Knight comes off the best as both Maggie's business associate and a string of parents Tom and Maggie meet in New Jersey. Brooke's performance lacks layers, but, like Caitlin Miller and Robert English (who play two of the more colorful inhabitants of New Jersey), there is little character for her to build on in the first place.
Anne Kauffman's direction is frequently clever, especially in the way she handles the scene changes and babies that appear throughout the show. The modern set, full of squares and rounded edges, by Susan Zeeman Rogers, adds a lot to the show visually and manages to add a few surprises of its own.
Ultimately, what The Right Way to Sue presents onstage is potential wasted, much like the baby in the play, who suffers from forgetful, neglecting parents. The first few scenes do suggest the possibility of a rich play being mined from this subject matter, but, as it is, this mixture of elements simply doesn't allow that play to rise to the surface.
New Georges and HERE