Dimly Perceived Threats to the System

A subversive look at the all-American family

Despite the right wing's renewed push for "family values," the perfect American family -- with happily married Mom and Dad and well-behaved little Dick and Jane -- never actually existed. If this is news to you (or if your mom really was June Cleaver), then Jon Klein's 1995 play, presented by Ambit Theater Company, will be a real eye-opener. Structured like a sitcom with short scenes, the work focuses on a decidedly typical white family with predictable problems: Daughter Christine (Riki Lindhome) acts out in school, Dad (Bob Lieberman) is having an affair, and Mom (Sondra Putnam) feels everything's her fault. For a piece that proposes to debunk the sitcom myth, the characters are frustratingly stereotypical. Dad's about as effective as Homer Simpson; his mistress and work partner Megan Lones (Angela Anderson) is portrayed as the trite single (and bisexual) female with a cat; and Mom is a neurotic mess who flirts with the school therapist (played the night I attended by the funny and subtle understudy Tom Juarez). What saves the play from banality are layers of unreality, as when Mom walks in on her husband and Megan just as Megan says, "Don't think about your wife." Or when Dr. Grey (Carol Flanagan), the physician for the family's hospitalized grandmother (whose "system is being threatened"), transforms into the grandmother to comfort Christine. Or when it appears the therapist is trying to give Christine a lobotomy with a power drill when he's really just sharpening a pencil. These ludicrous scenes make us question what is really happening onstage and work as "anti-sitcom" fodder, heightening those shows' ridiculous plot structure. Director Debbie Lynn Carriger made a smart choice in not changing the lighting for these scenes, which might have been heavy-handed. But these subversions become muddied by the sitcom ending, as we learn that Dad really does want the perfect family, and Mom decides not to blame herself anymore.

 
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