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A CurtainUp Review
We Live Here

Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.— Leo Tolstoy in Anna Karenina
We Live Here
Amy Irving and Jeremy Shamos
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Leo Tolstoy's famous quote about happy families all being alike, and thus boring, has made the dysfunctional family drama far more popular than anything revolving around a family "being unhappy in its way." Wearing her hat as an actor, Zoe Kazan has been part of a number of dramas about families seething with all manner of inner turmoil and strife (The Seagull, 100 Saints You Should Know, Come Back Little Sheba.

With We Live Here, her second play and first major New York production, Ms. Kazan seems to have opted to take her chance with a happy family. The Bateman family in whose home the play is set seems to fit the happy upper middle class American family mold. First on stage is Maggie Bateman (Amy Irving). She's a bit overwhelmed by the upcoming wedding of her daughter Althea (Jessica Collins) but it's a happy kind of overwhelmed. The bride-to-be appears to be madly in love with Sandy (Jeremy Shamos), her charmingly amenable fiance. Lawrence (Mark Blum), the family patriarch may be under pressure to satisfy the publish or perish mantra that rules academia, but he's a tenured professor and obviously with a generous enough salary to pay for John Lee Beatty's gorgeously detailed house in a New England college town and the upcoming wedding.

But not so fast. Upon closer look that "seems" becomes the operative word here.

The opening scene during which we see Maggie unwrapping Althea's wedding gifts and adding the gift givers' names to a thank you list hints at an excessively take-charge, controlling mom. The arrival of younger daughter Dinah (Betty Gilpin, a Julliard music student, sends up signals that there's a reason she's nervous about bringing her boyfriend to her sister's wedding.

The arrival of Daniel (Oscar Isaac), Dinah's heretofore secret boyfriend makes it clear that her anxiety is well founded. You see, Daniel is no stranger to the Batemans. His connection with them dates back thirteen years, when Dinah was a six year old and Daniel, Althea and her twin sister Andi were teenagers. Since there's no listing for Andi in the program's cast list, it doesn't take Sherlock Holmes to guess that the third of Kazan's three sisters will be present on this stage only as a shadow that overarches the increasingly tense unraveling of the family's grappling with unhappy past events.

Kazan's script is peppered with these signs that in addition to Althea's wedding presents, painful memories about the absent Andi will be unwrapped. The excellent cast handles the subtleties of the undercurrents in the familial and romantic relationships so that you don't see the various revelations coming from a mile away.

As might be expected from the granddaughter of a famous Greek American, Kazan has also added some more highbrow hints via a discussion of the paper Aristotle specialist Lawrence is working on. He says that he's already written pretty extensively about hamartia, a term described by Aristotle as one of the three kinds of injuries that a person can commit against another person and often defined as a tragic hero's fatal flaw. Lawrence shares the belief of those scholars who do not see hamartia as a specific moral failing, but simply as a kind of human failing, an error anyone could make. Thus, in the myth of Andromeda, Cassiopeia would not be felled by pride. Chaining her child to a rock and leaving it to drown would just be something that could happen in life, outside of a Greek tragedy.

Even if you don't instantly connect the Cassiopeia allusion and the Bateman daughters' names to the Andi mystery, Kazan has stuffed her pre-wedding weekend with all manner of emotions common to Greek tragedies: guilt, resentment and feelings of personal inadequacy. Enough so to sustain your interest and curiosity. What's more, the arrival of Daniel that jump starts the unhappy memory trip, comes with a satisfying surprise bang and the ever cheerful and loving Sandy will keep you wondering whether he will hold on to his hard-won positive and forgiving outlook. As for the big question pertaining to the Bateman parents and daughters. . .it's not so much when they will finally acknowledge their painful past, but whether they can move forward with their lives.

All this brings us back to that first impression. Clearly, We Live Here once again demonstrates that Tolstoy was right: It is indeed more interesting to watch Kazan's sisters and their parents being "unhappy in their own way" than to witness a new Father of the Bride romp. That's not to say that this new take on old-fashioned family drama genre is a flawless triumph; the main flaw being that in her final act Kazan allows her likeable but troubled sisters to wander too deeply, and somewhat inexplicably, into extreme dysfunction.

Director Sam Gold, who managed to squeeze every drop of nuance from the various characters in Annie Baker's Circle Mirror Transformation and Aliens, hasn't quite managed to do the same for all of Kazan's people, especially, Amy Irving's Maggie and Oscar Isaac's Danny. On the other hand, the performances of the always reliable Mark Blum and Jeremy Shamos are in keeping with the overall subtlety of Gold's direction.

We Live Here by Zoe Kazan
Directed by Sam Gold
Cast: Betty Gilpin (Dinah), Oscar Isaac (Daniel), Jeremy Shamos (Sandy).
Sets: John Lee Beatty
Costumes: David Zinn
Lighting: Ben Stanton
Sound: Ryan Rumery
Fight direction: Thomas Schall
Stage Manager: Gregory T. Livoti
Running Time: 2 hours with one intermission
Manhattan Theater Club at New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street
From 9/22/11; opening 10/12/11; closing 11/06/11.
Review by Elyse Sommer based on 10/09 matinee press preview
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