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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Susan Bennett, Todd Lawson, Tristan Colton, and Curzon Dobell.
Photo by Dixie Sheridan.

The pressures of living in a cookie-cutter community explode in ways debilitating and desultory in Levittown, the listless play by Marc Palmieri that just opened at the Theatre at St. Clement's. This is a serious-minded examination of how the Baby Boomer culture continues to erode the American Dream. But it suffers, much as Palmieri's play claims its namesake Long Island housing development does, from its overpowering desire to forfeit individuality for the sake of security - a bargain that, in drama as well as usually in real life, is destined to fail.

How often, for example, have you been exposed to the grizzled war vet too haunted by his experiences to ever talk about them - let alone live a vital life decades after the fighting has ended? Or the religious nut who destroys his family by attempting to "save" them? Or the children who can't live up to their parents' expectations - let alone the standards they set? It's apparently Palmieri's intent to show how these traditional troubles don new edginess when played out against the claustrophobic backdrop of one house amid hundreds in the late-40s project that was designed to give servicemen a post-war opportunity for normality. The idea being, of course, that in the subsequent 50 years (the play is set in 1999), the definition of "normal" has substantially shifted.

But despite careful direction by George Demas and a smartly realistic set by Michele Spadaro that beautifully captures the cage-like confines of the house of Edmund Maddigan, you see the gears of Palmieri's mechanics more than you feel their effects. Edmund (Dane Knell) is consumed by the horrors of World War II and the fact that he survived when no one else in his platoon did. Meanwhile, Richard Briggs (Curzon Dobell) longs to contact his ex-wife, Kathleen (Deborah Tranelli), and the children he chased away with his violent religiosity, all of whom have now moved in with Edmund and are suffering various growing pains.

The daughter, Colleen (Susan Bennett), is a recovering bulimic and drug addict who's finally found a man, named Brian (Todd Lawson), who's capable of loving and marrying her despite her demons. Son Kevin (Tristan Colton) has drifted through four colleges and returned from the last with the dream of becoming a fireman, just like his cousin Joe (Tyler Pierce), Joe's now-deceased father, and Edmund. More immediately dangerous are the flames Richard kindles by trying to control Kevin and insinuate himself back into Colleen's life. It soon becomes obvious that Richard was even worse for her than the cocaine habit she spent years trying to kick.

The setup is ripe for tart conflict, but Palmieri and Demas squeeze very little juice from it. Part of the problem is everyone's severe dysfunction, which eventually approaches the level of camp. Everyone is built on an inflated trait rather than organically derived from their geographic and human surroundings, and the likes of Kathleen's all-consuming Buddhism, Joe's back-slapping jocularity, Colleen's jitteriness, Richard's evangelism, and Edmund's ever-increasing distance don't naturally play well together. (Ideally, Brian would contextualize all the weirdness, but he's written as a high-functioning neurotic with an intense hotel fixation.)

Even more difficult is the acting, which is unsteady on almost every front. Only Lawson fully accepts and embodies his character, finding some sense of a stabilizing force within Brian's deceptively bizarre exterior. Despite having the meatiest role, Bennett finds only a chafing anxiousness in Colleen, which doesn't make her triumphs over adversity particularly inspiring. Knell is distractingly vacant as Edmund, never portraying a rich sense of being tortured by the history he helped create. Colton, Pierce, and Tranelli make their characters supple nonentities. And Dobell is utterly unconvincing as Richard, alternating between conveying serial-killer rage and the simmering agitation of an accountant who accidentally closed the wrong spreadsheet - the middle ground would make for a richer character.

And a play, if Palmieri were to take it throughout. He's found a perfect metaphor for vivisecting the curse of conformity, and that makes Levittown - even at its dullest - never less than watchable. But within the established guidelines Palmieri insists on following, his whimsical deviations too often subvert his message rather than support it. The power of the play isn't to be found in the quirks that make each member of the family different from the others, but instead from the background, pain, and occasional joy that inspire uniqueness even in environments where everything looks identical from the outside.

Through August 1
Theatre at St. Clements, 423 West 46th Street
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