The Ordinary Yearning of Miriam Buddwing
Steppenwolf Theatre Company
By Kelly Kleiman
"All happy families are alike," says Tolstoy at the start of Anna Karenina, "but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." These days, though, it seems it's the unhappy families that are all alike: parents disappointing, children ungrateful, patrimony insufficient if not damaging. Or, as one of my friends is fond of remarking, "'dysfunctional family' is redundant." Probably Tolstoy's famous line is ironic.
Whatever the topic, the wearied sense that we've heard it all before is an indictment not of the subject but of the writer. There aren't many complaints that Ulysses is just another goddamned book about how life is a journey. But Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros's new play, commissioned by Steppenwolf, is just another goddamned play about how families don't work--about how children consume their mothers and mothers eat their young.
In contrast to her scalding, flawlessly heard, highly specific autopsy of two marriages in the 1992 My Thing of Love, The Ordinary Yearning of Miriam Buddwing is an utterly routine, overfamiliar--one might almost say ordinary--account of contemporary family life as it's lived somewhere in suburban New York. It's not surprising that a relatively young playwright should know more about the traps of early marriage than she does about the disappointments of late life, but then she'd best leave the latter topic alone until she's ready for it. The earlier piece was painfully true, and its comedy served real emotions, but everything about the new play rings false. Both humor and pathos are forced, resulting not in tragicomedy but in melodrama with shtick.
The title character, nicknamed Mamie, is the upper-middle-aged alcoholic wife of a comatose man on his deathbed, set up in her kitchen. It's clear that he's paying her as much attention now as he ever did. Their teenage daughter Sannie loathes her mother and her home and dreams of breast augmentation. Mamie's two adult sons, one a woods-dwelling poet and the other a cop, likewise give mom as wide a berth as possible. But as the play begins, they arrive home for rare visits, boiling with resentment. There's certainly potential in the setup. And then, as in the Monty Python routine, nothing happens. Oh, mom drinks, dad dies, and the children scream, but their actions and reactions seem only tenuously related. E.M. Forster once explained that chronology is "the King died, and then the Queen died" while plot is "the King died, and then the Queen died of grief." What we have here is chronology without consequences.
Yet Gersten-Vassilaros's debt to her theatrical elders is extensive: it seems she's written "The Glass Menagerie Plus The Price Meets Neil Simon." Mamie is the overbearing, infuriating Amanda Wingfield, dominating and alienating her children, with a daughter at home she can't manage to dispose of. Director Anna D. Shapiro flags the connection by having Mamie swoop down to wipe her son's mouth, an apparent homage to Amanda's speech about the proper way to chew. The sons are like Tom Wingfield ripped in half: one a sensitive writer, the other a cauldron of rage, both poised for escape. Instead of crippled Laura trying to dance we have flat-chested Sannie stuffing fruit down her shirt. And, true to Williams, at the end mother and daughter are left behind, back where they were at the beginning only more depressed. But in The Glass Menagerie the audience believes in the characters' delicate hopes and shatters along with their illusions, while in The Ordinary Yearning of Miriam Buddwing the audience can see the injury coming a mile away but couldn't care less. Likewise, whereas in Arthur Miller's The Price the arrival of an elderly Jewish outsider presages the exposure of family secrets, here the appearance of the family lawyer (Mike Nussbaum) portends pretty much only the end of the play, though there are plenty of voices raised and doors slammed en route.
Gersten-Vassilaros's skill at comic dialogue is considerable. When Sannie (Brett Korn) accuses her mother (Mary Ann Thebus) of being a problem drinker, Mamie answers, "I've never thought of myself as a problem--more of a mystery." Confronting his mother about his father's death, cop son Doug (David Matthew Warren) complains, "Home is not where people kill each other and hurt each other and lie to each other," to which Mamie replies, "That's exactly what it is!" But dialogue like this takes a sitcom approach to a deeply unfunny situation, and the characters can't redeem the play's superficiality as they seem to be objects of contempt. When Mamie says, "I'm not too old to be eager," it's a laugh line--the playwright, the director, or both obviously think she is.
Even more troubling is the portrait of Serita, the family's Hispanic home health aid (Charin Alvarez): she lacks only fruit on her head to be a full-blown caricature. Serita says things like "When I was a girl-ita" and dances around the kitchen representing primitive high spirits while her employer is dying. Her attempt to seduce poet son William (Andrew M. White, filling in for John C. Connelly) rests on all the stereotypes of hot-blooded Latin spitfires. No one would do a play featuring a comic African-American mammy, and people ought to be equally troubled by a comic Latina maid/sex object.
Thebus makes Mamie suitably confused and suitably earnest, and I appreciate her restraint in not taking the character over the top, but Gersten-Vassilaros's script gives the actress nothing to build to or from. Nussbaum is delightful as the outsider thrust into this family mess, and his interaction with Thebus provides the evening's one flash of genuine emotion. But the other actors seem adrift; there's a lot of putting feet on the furniture to represent rebellion.
Geoffrey Curley's sprawling set of the Buddwings' suburban domain does make one long for escape. Or maybe that was the play.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Brosilow.