National Jewish Theater
at Mayer-Kaplan Jewish Community Center
Few people still believe the earth is the center of the universe. Many people, however, seem convinced that the universe revolves around them.
Jules Feiffer has created an entire family of such wildly egocentric people in Grown Ups. They need each other, certainly, but in very selfish, demanding ways. They might even love each other, but the love is strategically withheld to gain power and control. In this family, the ties that bind are used to strangle and imprison; each member is struggling to preserve a little breathing space. Put them together at a family gathering, where no one can escape, and the stage is set for a farce that is simultaneously horrifying and hilarious.
The National Jewish Theater's production of Grown Ups is more successful at bringing out the horror than the humor, but that's probably in keeping with Feiffer's intent. The horror reaches a climax early in the second act when Jake, the smothered son of the overbearing mother introduced in the first act, becomes embroiled in a spat with his wife, Louise. Although some of the lines evoke laughter, there is nothing funny about this fight. Feiffer has captured, with remarkably simple dialogue, the circuitous arguments of two people who can't identify what's really annoying them, and the two actors who recite that dialogue--Gerry Becker and Peggy Roeder--do an astonishing job of generating the savagery and bitterness that only lovers can exhibit.
The scene is stunning in its own right, but it gains power from its position between two scenes showing Jake with his parents and sister. During the argument, it becomes clear that Jake considers his wife inadequate. She doesn't read enough to suit him, and she misuses figures of speech (she tells Jake his mother "lies like a glove"). Louise is annoyed because Jake dotes on their eight-year-old daughter, and because he has an obsessive need to accomplish--he's a reporter for the New York Times, a free-lance writer, and the author of a book, just about to appear, that has earned blurbs from David Halberstam and John Kenneth Galbraith.
Seeing Jake with his family makes the reasons for his behavior obvious. His mother is judgmental and manipulative. When Jake pours himself a drink, she pesters him until he dumps it out. His father, on the other hand, is aloof and indifferent. Each time he asks his son, "What's new?" Jake feels compelled to announce another impressive accomplishment, which fails to impress his father sufficiently.
Yet the parents blatantly favor Jake, and treat his sister, Marilyn, like a nonentity. Even though she has invited the entire family to her house, her parents won't let her finish a simple story, and when Jake arrives, they dote shamelessly over him. "If you take them someplace in your car, you're this wonderful success who can afford his own car," Marilyn complains to Jake. "If I take them someplace in my car, I'm the chauffeur."
In a program note, Feiffer laments the dissolution of the family, but Grown Ups presents a family that is destroying itself through the narcissism and rivalry rampant among its members. The title is ironic, of course--these aren't grown-ups at all; they're children incapable of empathy or autonomy. They are driven by infantile longings for affection and omnipotence. And not only are such needs and delusions impervious to intelligence, intelligence seems to make them more malignant, disguising their true nature with displays of altruism and concern. Sure, the parents are proud of their son, but they also bask in his reflected glory, and subtly threaten to stop loving him if he should ever disappoint.
Director Kyle Donnelly has done a superb job with the second act of Grown Ups, which makes the lassitude of the first act even more puzzling. In the first act, Joan Spatafora, despite a fine performance as the mother, can't establish the rapacious aspects of her character. Jerry Jarrett displays no discernible personality as the father. And Marilyn (Eileen Vorbach) remains a vague figure throughout, largely because Vorbach never seems to decide how her character really feels about how she is being treated. Only during the family gathering in the final scene, after Jake has displayed some infantile behavior of his own while fighting with his wife, do these other characters really come into focus.
This is the first production of the National Jewish Theater under its new artistic director, Sheldon Patinkin, and his associate, Arnold Aprill. Last year, in its premiere season, the NJT staged sweet, sentimental stories about Jewish life. There will be no more of that. Grown Ups, which takes a hard, chilling look at family dynamics, will be followed by three intriguing projects: a new translation of The Dybbuk; adaptations of short stories by Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Stanley Elkin; and a musical called Minnie's Boys, based on the lives of the Marx Brothers.
The NJT has grown up.