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We Live Here

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Betty Gilpin, Oscar Isaac, Amy Irving, Mark Blum, Jessica Collins, and Jeremy Shamos.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Secrets aren't everything in Zoe Kazan's new play We Live Here, which just opened at Manhattan Theatre Club: They're the only thing. One suburban New England family has so grown to thrive on them, in fact, that they're barely able to carry on whenever they're allowed to just say exactly what they mean. If you're thinking that can't be a great way to live, you're undoubtedly right. But it's a worse way to structure a play, especially when—as here—all that subterfuge is so hopelessly manufactured that it's impossible for it to also be interesting.

Alas, you must also forget your hopes that a visionary director may be able to salvage things. This production has one in Sam Gold, the quiet genius behind Circle Mirror Transformation and a number of other recent plays that proven his ability to find grandness in the most unassuming places. But he's stymied by Kazan's un-grand brood brooding because... well, if we spoiled that now, you wouldn't come back for the second act. The most he can do is push and pull his actors around, hoping they will eventually align into some configuration that makes sense. Through no fault of Gold's, that doesn't happen often.

Sure, the individual elements track well enough. Alli (Jessica Collins) is days away from marrying Sandy (Jeremy Shamos), and Alli's mother Maggie (Amy Irving) is going nuts with the preparations. She's so time-absorbed that she's already opened all the gifts so the happy couple can get a head start on writing the thank-you notes. Dad Lawrence (Mark Blum) is just trying to stay out of the way, especially since youngest sister Dinah (Betty Gilpin), is due to arrive any moment from Juilliard, where she's going to school—and she and Alli don't get along well. Why? You're not supposed to ask that, either.

Suffice it to say, it has something to do with Dinah's boyfriend, Daniel (Oscar Isaac), who's coming with her and planning to stay the weekend. He has a history with the family, too, having also made the rounds with Alli once upon a time. Everyone loves Daniel, but no one quite likes him, for reasons that—like so much here—are shadowy for shadow's sake. Alli, however, isn't done with Daniel yet, and their reopening their relationship sets in motion a chain of events that will break the family apart at a pinpoint-precise moment in the second act, because pulling such strings earlier just isn't done.

The addiction to the schematic, annoying as it is, is all that keeps We Live Here upright. Plays can survive a deficit of plot if the characters are rich and vivid. They've been known to surf to success on pure story despite containing people more charcoal sketch than flesh and blood. Heck, some can forgo plot or characters if there's a powerful controlling style and an unstoppable purpose propelling the action forward. But they can't survive solely on the fumes of tensionless suspense, as this one tries to do.

At least this production is not completely bereft of positives. John Lee Beatty has designed a gorgeous quasi-rustic living-room set, which Ben Stanton has lit with autumnal flair. The performers, too, for the most part satisfy. Irving effectively melds angst and anxiousness in one woman forever on the verge of losing control, Blum presents a virtuosic picture of a man who long ago ceded his emotions to others, Shamos adeptly charts the good-natured guy stuck between warring extremes, and Isaac summons the proper air of sultry mystery to cloak the transformative Daniel. Gilpin and Collins are looser than their cast mates, but believably fill out the periphery of this shattered clan forever questing for glue.

But there's nothing for any of it to add up to. The problem isn't merely that Kazan doesn't know what story she's telling or why she's telling it, as her overriding focus seems to shift every ten minutes or so. Nor is it that she doesn't know how to craft her ending, and surrenders to temporality by catapulting everyone into chaos, unrolling some more circuitous dialogue, and then calling it quits. It isn't even that none of the revelations intended to push us to the edge of our seats can so much as set our neck hairs tingling.

No, what's wrong is the atmosphere of self-importance that blocks out everything else. Kazan, who's better known at the present for her acting roles, may believe that audiences are willing to endure her directionless dithering around different branches of the narrative, or that there's something clever or cosmic in naming the daughters of a classics professor Althea and Andromeda. (Oops, did I give something away?) But there must be substance to back it up; Tony Kushner plays similar games in his writing, but Angels in America (which, not coincidentally, Kazan appeared in at Signature a season ago) is about something.

We Live Here is not. At best, it turns on a notion: that, for supposedly good reasons we have to wait to hear, no one in the house can truly talk to anyone else. But Kazan has commiserated with her own characters and discovered what makes them tick, let alone why it's so vital that we know who they are. Their troubles are severe, yes, but not so impenetrable that genuine connection can't salve over the wounds. That they never remedy things during the chances they have is strictly because of writer fiat. From the audience, that looks more listless and languid than it does any kind of profound.

We Live Here
Through October 30
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I at City Center, 131 West 55th Street at NY City Center between 6th and 7th Avenue
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