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Once Upon a Time There Was a Family


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They look like the ideal American family at first glance: The father goes to work daily at an office where he makes the money that gives his family their comfortable home (four and a half bathrooms). The mother attends PTA meetings and contributes extravagantly to the church. The teenage son earns his own spending money making and selling stuffed toys. The little girl is--well, cute.

But all is not as it seems. The father is carrying on an affair with his secretary, who's called Like because of her habit of beginning every sentence with that word. The mother is a nymphomaniac/prostitute (the parish priest is one of her most, uh, faithful customers). The teenage son stuffs his teddy bears with cocaine, generously supplied by the chief of police. And his sister wears a Freddy Krueger glove, eats with a knife, and acts out violent fantasy games with her two dolls, "Claw Barbie" and "Flamethrower Barbie."

None of the family members in Once Upon a Time There Was a Family is aware of the others' covert activities. But when the priest (who is not above a bit of camera-happy blackmail) is found murdered, suspicion falls on the father, who is not above a bit of blackmail himself if it will get the police detective off his tail.

None of this is particularly original. The placid and prosperous nuclear family has been under attack for three decades, as disgruntled children have rebelled against its monstrous hypocrisy. A priest decked out in clerical collar and fishnet stockings elicits no horror anymore, nor do giggly hints of orgies involving maple syrup, dog collars, and rolling pins. (However, the postfeminist moppet with the Arnold Schwarzenegger scowl appears to be a recent addition to the roster of Middle America's decadent types.)

Playwright Kenn Adams is apparently counting on style to carry his narrative. His play has plenty of that. For beginners, the entire story is told in the third person. For example, the father will say, "The father gave a cry of anguish--aaaargh--but quickly regained his composure"--by which time the character will have assumed a relaxed position. This narrative device, along with the characters' generic names, establishes an artificiality that's emphasized by the breakneck speed at which the action is conducted.

Even 90 minutes is a long trip when it's fueled by little more than frenzy, but through unfaltering energy and split-second timing, director Michael Wexler and his cast manage to keep the production interesting right up to its logical final gag. The members of the company move through the athletic stunts with the agility of cats and enunciate with the precision of Gilbert and Sullivan stars on Methedrine. Scott Kennedy makes a wide-eyed and loose-limbed father, a sharp contrast with the wiggly sensuality of Barbara Beach as the mother. Woodrow James Bryant is a suitably callow and capitalistic teenage son, but Roberta Rudolph all but walks away with the show as the all-seeing little girl (in one scene she attempts to camouflage herself as a coffee table and actually succeeds). The rip-and-zip awards go to Troy West and Gayla Goehl (you may remember her as the lupine prom queen in Lobo a Go-Go), who between them play no less than nine characters, sometimes changing costumes in less than five seconds. (Once West exits shouting as one character, only to enter as another at the end of the same shout.)

Andrew Dahlman's set incorporates six doors for the characters to pop in and out of, as well as a window through which people hurl televisions, teddy bears, and themselves; the window's shade doubles as a screen for sudden slide projections. Evie Wexler's costumes combine the flexibility of wet suits with the sturdiness of chain mail, and some uncredited sound designer has assembled intermission music that segues from Captain Kangaroo's theme song to Spike Jones, an unsubtle comment on the phoniness of innocence if ever there was one.

While no replacement for substance, a little style can sometimes go a long way.

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