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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Brace Yourself

"Milt, I might be in danger of losing my joi de vivre."/i>— Sunny
Brace Yourself
Jackie Hoffman, Jill Eikenberry. Photo by Jackie Hoffman, Jill Eikenberry
(Photo credit: Chris Reis)
Sunny (Jill Elkenberry) has plenty of reason to see her joi de vivre as an endangered species. A hurricane is threatening her carefully orchestrated wedding for daughter Nina's (Tara Franklin) at their family's summer home on an Island near New York City. The noisy neighbors make sleep impossible. The bride is in a sulk because she wants an intimate wedding instead of the "blockbuster" into which her controlling mom has turned it. In short, a storm is brewing inside as well as outside the house.

On the other hand, Sunny does have a devoted husband in Milt (Michael Tucker who happens to be Elkenberry's off stage spouse) who assures her that her "joi de vivre is unstoppable, and un-lose-able). But despite Milt's loving support as well of that of Jeannette (Jackie Hoffman), a more compatible neighbor and long time friend, this combustible Jewish wedding situation is further exacerbated by a senile aunt inconveniently dying on the living room sofa. And, oh yes an unanticipated house guest, Kitty (Clea Alsip), the latest girlfriend of Andy (David Ross), the sexy slacker son.

Obviously, playwright David Epstein has seized every opportunity for mayhem. And so, as the island community (the most obvious real counterpart is Fire Island) must brace itself for the hurricane, and Sunny for losing control of not just the wedding but her children's lives, so audience members should brace themselves for a veritable hurricane of laugh lines.

Sure, Epstein treads familiar, sit-comish territory, but he's mined the setup of a family wedding set-up that pushes a bunch of familial relationships into ticking bomb territory with dialogue loaded with good punch lines and spiced with apt references to timely topics. (e.g.: The war in AFghanistan, Katrina, the internet, early retirement packages). He's also managed to tie the implausible shtick like the improbable inclusion of the aged and duplicitous aunt in the wedding arrangements tie in with Sunny's determined devotion to family propriety and tradition.

Sunny may not mourn the aunt's passing, except for its inopportune timing, but she insists that even dead she must be treated with respect. As she puts it "She was a dumb, nasty person who who wounded your grandmother on a deeply personal level, but she remained family because that's what family is: selfish, vicious, ignorant or small-minded, it's still family!" If you're looking for meaning as well as laughs, that family is family mantra must also enable Sunny to let accept her family's survival even without her approval and let go of viewing them as children rather than the grownups they are.

Like any comedy, this one's being bracingly funny depends on the performances. The playwright and the audience is blessed with a stellar cast headed by Jill Elkenberry as the mother whose too early retirement from a prestigious job has ratcheted up her need to organize and control everything and everyone around her. Elkenberry and her real life husband Michael Tucker, are seasoned thespians who have honed their on-stage chemistry as regulars on the long running L.A. Law TV series as well as the York Theater's delightful revival of Enter Laughing . Tucker is outstanding as Brace Yourself's voice of reason. Good as both are one of New York's favorite comediennes Jackie Hoffman just about steals the show in her listed and unlisted role.

Tara Franklin as the conflicted bride, David Ross as brother Andy and Clea Alsip as this type of comedy's inevitable troubleshooting outsider all do fine work. The three young actors have a lovely moment together sharing some marijuana and singing Dylan's "You Ain't Goin' Nowhere."

James Naughton, best known as a performer, has smartly conflated the play's two acts, into six intermissionless scenes. Sound designer Scott Killian and lighting designers Paul Gallo and Craig Steizenmuller see to it that the intra-scene blackouts are swift and fluid. Hugh Landwehr has transformed the Fitzpatrick Main Stage into an aptly detailed seaside home, with just enough glimpses of the exterior. Applause is also due to costume designer David Murin, especially for his outfits for Hoffman.

I suppose you could find a subtext in Epstein's having the older generation who were no strangers to pot smoking in their youth rely on all manner of feel good pills like Ambien. But don't go looking for deep meanings. The idea, pure and simple, is to have a lot of laughs. Not a bad way to end the company's season.

Brace Yourself by David Epstein
Directed by James Naughton
Cast: Clea Alsip (Kitty), Jill Eikenberry (Sunny), Tara Franklin(Nina), Jackie Hoffman (Jeanette), David Ross (Andy), Michael Tucker (Milt)

Scenic design by Hugh Landwher
Lighting design by Paul Gallo and Craig Stelzenmuller
Costume design by David Murin
Sound design by Scott Killian.
Stage Manager: John Grassey
Running Time: 75 minutes, without intermission Berkshire Theatre Group's Fitzpatrick Main Stage
From 8/14;12; opening 8/18/12; closing 8/25/12
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 8/18 opening
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