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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Erin Cummings, Randy Harrison, Paul Anthony Stewart, and Alexis Molnar.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Channel surfing can lead you to strange places if you don't know the entertainment waters you're navigating. I'm positive, for example, that flipping too quickly past certain half-hour-comedy-choked cable stations will cause you to wash up at Primary Stages, where Harbor just opened. For most of the two hours that Chad Beguelin's play runs, there's little reason to believe you're anywhere other than in the live studio audience at the recording of a sitcom pilot.

The similarities, after all, are uncanny. There's a colorful, cheekily named or positioned locale (in this case, Sag Harbor). There's a tough-but-lovable mother named Donna (played by Erin Cummings) who's not only sure she's always the coolest person in the room, even though she never is, but acts like the 15-year-old she wishes she still were. There's her daughter, the actually 15-year-old Lottie (Alexis Molnar), who acts as though she's 40 and routinely proves it with her thorough knowledge of Virginia Woolf and Edith Wharton. And who can forget the two permanently upbeat gay guys, Donna's struggling-writer brother Kevin (Randy Harrison) and his architect hubby Ted (Paul Anthony Stewart)?

Jokes are obviously expected, and Beguelin doesn't make you wait long. Take this exchange, the first in the show:

Donna: "They hyphenated their last names. Freaking hyphenated them. How gay is that?"

Lottie: "They are gay."

Donna: "Yeah? Well, they just got a lot gayer."

Lottie: "Um, no. It's actually very straight of them."

Three gags in four lines—can't you just hear the canned laughter ringing in your ear?

"Canned," in fact, is a good way to describe most of Harbor, provided you remember that not everything that comes in a can is bad. If the play doesn't traffic in original ideas, at least Beguelin has attractively fluffed up the familiar. As with his contributions to the musical versions of Elf (lyricist) and The Wedding Singer (lyricist and co-librettist), his writing has a workmanlike but not always unattractive quality that suffices given the limited ambitions in evidence. That approach even makes sense: Most sitcoms don't want to either challenge or offend you.

Even so, Beguelin seems to want to push some boundaries, though even those are of the safe sort. He makes Donna a brutalized and self-centered witch who disregards anything that doesn't advance her desires, which opens the gates to plenty of barbs aimed at anyone outside her restricted worldview. I'm not sure that all of these are funny in this day and age, but there's a tartness about them you can't easily ignore:

"How long have you two been together?", she asks her brother.

"Coming up on ten years," he replies.

"Whoa, that's almost fifty-three in straight people years."

Of course Beguelin provides a reason for Donna's callousness: She and Lottie live in their van, victims of the down economy and their own poor choices, and they've come to visit Kevin and Ted for a very specific, trailer-trashy purpose that would probably constitute a spoiler were I to mention it. So let's just say that the reason both paints Donna in a bad light and forces a wedge between Kevin and Ted that forces them to reconsider their choices and ultimately, their relationship.

Such darker matters brand Harbor as legitimately more than pure fluff, but the further it strays from its established formula, the less effective it becomes. Its slightness of intent can't handle the weightier concerns that are eventually forced upon it, and none of the characters is vibrant or believable enough to sustain anything genuinely dramatic, either. The more Beguelin insists they do, the less you like them and are willing to tolerate their fabricated, show-bible idiosyncrasies. Precisely articulated personalities are required for this kind of trick to pay off; Family Ties was the king of this in its mid-80s day, seamlessly blending laughs with life, but even Friends (a more apropos model closer to one-dimensionality) could come down when it needed to.

As far as the actors, only Molnar strikes the proper balance between angst and joviality that defines Lottie, making her seem as though she's a real, suffering person in this universe. Stewart, though over the top early on, comes in a close second, and becomes human when Ted must bear the greatest burden of others' changes in the second act. Harrison, best known from Queer as Folk, and Cummings aim for consistency, but fall short, and are especially unconvincing once things get serious; Cummings, in particular, drenches Donna in too many quotation marks to ever bring her closer than arm's length.

Mark Lamos's direction is itself a bit soggy, and is seldom paced to bring out the latent qualities of any given scene. (One, in which Ted and Kevin have a heart-to-heart in a parking lot, is a notable exception.) Andrew Jackness's set and Japhy Weideman's lights are indecisive mixes of themes that try to register as simultaneously cheery and portentous, but don't quite convey anything recognizable. It's as though no one is precisely sure exactly what the tone of the show should be.

That problem goes right back to Beguelin. He can definitely be clever, and some of the dichotomies he explores—how much an adult gay man can be like a teenage girl, how little difference there is between Donna and Kevin at heart—are potentially substantial. But by attempting a bit too much, Beguelin ends up with a play that, unlike a really famous sitcom it echoes more than once, never comes to terms with being a show about nothing.

Through September 8
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
59E59 Theaters - Theater A, 59 East 59th Street, between Park and Madison
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