When did All in the Family go off the air? 1982? '83? Isn't it about time for another mass-entertainment show that looks at knotty social problems, from the perspective of a typical middle-American family? Apparently Joe Jennison thinks so: he has created a two-hour pilot episode called Pizza House, currently being produced at the Playwrights' Center.
The plot is simple and predictable: Tim Caravetti, a young playwright, is returning home to Ames, Iowa, from New York City with the intention of telling his parents that he's gay. His father is a surly, taciturn patriarch, and his mother a garrulous, kind-hearted nurturer. Other Ames residents include Melanie, the local bird-brained bimbo and hairdresser, who was once tagged as the future Mrs. Tim; Dalena Ditto, a former Miss Iowa runner-up and the prima donna of the local community theater, who may or may not be having an affair with Caravetti senior; and Bob, the pizza cook who never says more than three words at a time and seems to have no goal beyond making pizza.
To prepare his parents, Tim has sent ahead the script of his new play, which is about a young man who goes home to the midwest to confess to his parents that he is--oh, you get the idea. Tim has not sent his lover, Arthur, ahead, but Arthur has decided to come out all on his own. Script, lover, and playwright arrive in Ames within 9 minutes of one another, which sets the scene for the surprise party planned to celebrate Tim's homecoming.
After a commercial break--excuse me, intermission--act two opens on the party. A certain strain is beginning to show. Mrs. Caravetti attempts to start a game in which all the players tell something about themselves, These people have grown up together and should know all there is to know about each other, but maybe the playwright thought the labels were too small for the audience to read. The revelations of Mr. Caravetti's infidellty, Arthur's identity, and Tim's sexual preference result in an uproar that finishes with Dalena screaming and fleeing home to her mother, Melanie making one last bid for Tim's affection, Mr. Caravetti ordering his son out of the house, Mrs. Caravetti threatening to leave her husband, and Tim blaming Arthur for the whole fiasco.
In act three--but you already know what's coming, don't you? Do I have to tell you about the heart-to-heart talks, the hugging and crying and shaking of hands? About the misunderstandings and forgiving? About everybody finally accepting everybody else--well, we never hear from Melanie, Dalena, or Bob, but they're only around for the laughs anyway. The play ends happily, if uncertainly, with the two young men returning to New York. They're both invited to come back and visit anytime--though Mrs. Caravetti hints that Tim should come back for good and take over the family business, leaving the way open for a sequel or maybe even a series.
Pizza House is yet another play set in the never-never land of the TV sitcom. The setting is made artificially insular, in this instance, by ignoring the fact that Ames is the seat of a good-sized university (with a pretty respectable drama department) and by ignoring the fact that modern communications have brought information of the outside world to even the most remote regions. (AIDS is never mentioned by either of the protesting parents.) But the plot requires hicks, so hicks we must have.
We must also have gay males who are sophisticated, sensitive, idealistic, brave, honest, and fashionably dressed, while the--uh--other people must be ignorant, stubborn, narrow-minded, and about as mature as the Muppets. Melanie, Dalena, and Bob, as representatives of the road not taken, are not given one iota of humanizing feeling or bipedal intelligence. The Caravettis don't fare much better, until the plot requires them to do the big turnabout, of course. Indeed, in this kind of story, the heavies must be stupid and ineffectual, if basically good-hearted, or how will the star-crossed lovers triumph over them? Arthur in particular comes off as so quiveringly fragile that a real homophobe would have routed him in an instant.
Tim presents problems as well. In one scene he shares his hopes for his play's success by talking in jargon rarely heard outside professional theater circles, then is disappointed when the others don't understand him. We can't help but wonder whether this protagonist isn't being just a bit unreasonable. And he could have announced his homosexuality to his family in a letter, which would have allowed them time to absorb the news in private. Instead, he chooses to confront them face-to-face, after informing them that he is planning to hang them all out to dry in front of all New York. Why does Tim have to tell them all, for that matter--it's not as if he were a teenager still living at home. As the conflicts escalate, the question recurs: didn't he know this would happen? Did he really think that his parents would immediately forgive, accept, and rejoice? When his mother suggests that he "threw it in our faces," one can't help considering that the accusation might be valid.
There are things that a director and actors can do to breathe life into one-dimensional characters like these. Unfortunately, in this production they choose the easy laugh and the easy cry. The mean age of the Playwrights' Center company appears to be about 23, which makes for further confusion--Tim and Arthur look much older, and the Caravettis much younger, than they should. This is a problem especially with Paul Jeans as Mike Caravetti: his age is obviously painted on, and he plays the Caravetti paterfamilias as anything but fatherly and anything but Italian. As his wife, Donna Freeburn gibbers and giggles and chirps like a canary on Benzedrine. Even in a small town, you'd think this hebephrenic behavior might make someone wonder if the lady had all the treads on her staircase nailed down. Of course in act three she grows calm and quiet and wise, after we've had all the laughs we're gonna get at her expense. In the thankless roles of those three grotesques, Melanie, Dalena, and Bob, Cassy Harlo, Kathy Keyes, and Steve Kleinedler acquit themselves with the appropriate lack of subtlety. As Tim and Arthur, Charles Munro and Jeffrey Foster are suitably pale, persecuted, and sincere.
I'd be the last to claim that there's no place in dramatic literature for the gay equivalent of True Romance comics. And I'd be the last one to deny audiences their enjoyment of such fare. Pizza House is easy to chew and digest, perhaps because of the schmaltz--everyone knows fat makes the food taste better. But I was still hungry when I left the theater.