The Boston Playwrights' Theatre finished its fall season with an extreme modern comedy. Award-winning playwright--and BU/BPT alumnus--Ginger Lazarus moved into the absurd world of South Boston-born David Lindsey-Abaire or perhaps Juilliard's Christopher Durang to explore Matter Familias, the latest offspring of Ionesco's original vision of the theatre. This neo-farce has an unmarried 33 year old therapist deciding to adopt a 40 year old son. Her dysfunctional parents also have an adopted daughter, a lesbian African-American planning to have a child herself with her partner. And just for laughs, one of our heroine's former boyfriends turns out to be a cubicle mate of her new son--and more. Director Wesley Savick, head of Suffolk University's drama program, who directed BPT's last show, "The Glider," an intense three person family drama by Artistic Director Kate Snodgrass, kept a looser but effective rein on his experienced cast this time.
The center of this family cyclone is Katherine Peterson, played by comedienne Helen McElwain, fresh from a run as Beezus in Wheelock Family Theatre's "Ramona Quimby." Her practiced deadpan timing, which came to notice several seasons ago in "Fuddy Meers", was perfect for this role, though one can imagine an entirely different take on the character. She could in fact have used a bit more of her vocal range. Katherine's adopted son William was handsomely played by Gus Kelley, seen earlier in the fall as Odysseus in "A Matter of Salt," with more than a slight sense of suppressed incest. The dynamo behind the turmoil is Mother, archly created by award-winning actress Nancy E. Carroll, who started the season heralding "...The Ladies Who Lunch" in "Company" for Speakeasy. Carroll was last seen at BPT in "The Unexpected Man" and will finish this season in New Rep's "Into the Woods." TV-addicted Dad was Robert D. Murphy, seen last season in "Our Lady of 121st St.", passive through it all but sensitive when need be.
Outside the immediate Peterson family, but not for long is Claude, played by Barlow Adamson, who appeared last year at BPT in the docudrama, "Haymarket", with Savick in the lead. This time he got to let loose his comic demons. As adopted sister Lisa, Kortney Adams, seen this summer at the Publick Theatre as Nerissa, was a convincing partner to Karen "Mal" Malme's Lisa M. as they planned to have a baby together. Mal was seen this summer at BPT in Queer Soup's "Invasion of Pleasure Valley." How the playwright brings these three into the web of unlikely relationships which energizes the farce would make Feydau proud.
The high-jinks of this play were all managed quite neatly on Richard Chambers' abstract white set, whose walls were lumpy with baby dolls protruding through their fabric covering. The center of the stage was delineated by four white poles extending to the flies, two chairs and a low white table were the all-purpose furniture, along with the white rug, upon which Mother spent a portion of each scene. Haddon Kime's witty soundscape started with babies crying in the distance before the show begins, included eating and drinking sounds needed in the action, and kept things humming along. Gail Astrid Buckley found appropriately straight garments for the skewed family, plus some classical Greek garb for Katherine's nightmare which replayed "Oedipus" with a choreographed ending. MFA student Anthony Kudner's lighting cast an even glow over the proceedings.
While obviously doable in its current short two-act form, "Matter Familias" has room for expansion through character development. It should be possible incorporate more foreshadowing while explaining these peculiar people just a bit more. Even a slightly longer run, or a chance to remount the show in the near future, would allow the talented cast to contribute more of their insight. Farce really only develops in front of an audience. But since McElwain has shows upcoming at the Huntington, Boston Theatre Works, and for Slavick's Coyote Theatre, Carroll plays Amanda at the Lyric next month, Adams is appearing in BTW "The Tempest", Adamson's in Lyric's "Red Herring" soon enough, and so on, one can only hope that some other local farceurs will take up the challenge and give the playwright another chance to work on this intriguing script.
The only regret about Boston Playwrights' fall season of new work was the short runs for each work. Even John Kuntz' "Jasper Lake" which started the season back in October, the least developed of the three shows offered, would have benefited by another weekend or two. It went on after a short run by Nora Theatre of Richard McElvain's new adaptation of "Antigone" which deserved more time as well. Artistic director Kate Snodgrass's "The Glider" was just starting to build after three weeks when it closed. This show also deserved more time to exploit all of its complex comic rhythms. New works need time before an audience to reach their full potential, though all four this fall pleased the limited number who got to see them.
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