Regional Reviews: San Diego
Playwright Lindsey Ferrentino uses the family-gathering tradition to do some cultural stock-taking in her new play, The Year to Come. La Jolla Playhouse is presenting the play's world premiere production through December 30.
As fans of the Sondheim musical Merrily We Roll Along know, telling a story backwards has advantages and disadvantages. The Year to Come exhibits both in its storytelling.
The family in question is originally from Brooklyn, but parents Estelle (Jane Kaczmarek) and Frank (Jonathan Nichols) have retired to central Florida. They are joined by Estelle's sister Pam (Marcia DeBonis), her husband Joe (Ray Anthony Thomas), son Jim (Adam Chanler-Berat) and his husband, Sinan (Pomme Koch). The New Year celebrations begin in 2018 and work their way backwards to the beginning of the new century.
Florida life centers around the pool, and this family spends much of its time there, despite such distractions as a sliding glass door that must be kept closed to keep the house air conditioned and condors that hover overhead, especially when food is present. Christopher Acebo provides the scenic designincluding a real pool, Dede Ayite the costume design, Lap Chi Chu the lighting design, and Brandon Wolcott the sound design.
Mostly, the family tells stories, and those stories are often rooted in the cultural currency of the day. Many of the stories have been retold over the years. In some cases, the family knows them to be not quite true, but they are tolerated as important to the telleror, to the family. There is one story about beef, for example, that some family members find hilarious and others do not. (For the record, the punchline to the beef story is told at the play's end, and the audience may have the same reaction as the family.)
Working backwards allows the audience to see how the family got to where it was in 2018, and sometimes the stories reflect cultural changes, such as how Jim came out to his family and how the family adapted to his relationship with Sinan. There can be irony observed, such as family members agreeing that George W. Bush was the "worst president ever," after knowing that some in the family were Trump supporters in 2016. There can instances where family members will say, "That'll never happen," when the audience knows that it did happen. There are too many of these for my tasteI think that generally they reflect lazy attempts at humor.
Then there is Frank's story about 9/11. An active firefighter at the time, Frank's story is about how he rushed to the north tower as a first responder. He tells it more than once most of the times the family gathers, and it is clear that his heroics are important to him. But it is also clear that the story is not entirely true and the play is at its best in revealing how the false parts came into being.
Director Anne Kauffman has nicely cast the production, and she manages the backward passage of time well, both visually and in terms of changes in acting styles as the characters regress in age. She has melded the cast into an effective ensemble, and interest in watching the performances can compensate for humor that falls flat or stories that go on too long. Mr. Chanler-Berat is nominally the lead, and his character's reverse arc is the most developed. Each of the performers contributes to the feeling that this diverse family loves and values each other despite annoying and disagreeing with each other.
The Year to Come is most affecting when it isn't trying to be funny and when it traverses cultural changes lightly. If you go expecting an uproarious comedy, you will be disappointed. If you go expecting to get to know an interesting family, you may well be pleased.
The Year to Come, through December 30, 2018, at the Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla CA. Performances are Tuesday/Wednesday at 7:30pm; Thursday/Friday/Saturday at 8pm; Sunday at 7pm; Saturday/Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are available by calling 858-550-1010 or by visiting lajollaplayhouse.org.
Additional cast members are Jenna Dioguardi and Peter Van Wagner.