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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Big Sky

Can't we pull ourselves together and, for the sake of getting through this without killing one another, just be nice? Be nice. Be quiet or be nice! Is that so hard? — Jonathan
big sky (L-R) Arnie Burton, Emily Robinson, Jennifer Westfeldt and Jon Tenney. (Photo by Darrett Sanders)
Photo: Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros labels her jet-black domestic comedy Big Sky a "cautionary tale" which feels largely on point. What specifically is the play &emdash; in its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse &emdash; cautioning us against? The list is lengthy.

For starters, do not place the entirety of your family's hopes and dreams on the success of a single business deal. Do check the contents of your daughter's purse before she goes clubbing with the daughter of your future boss. Do not destroy a buffalo unless you plan to use every last bit of its carcass. Be careful both about whom you confide in and whom you keep secrets from. And remember to fill up the fridge of your luxurious ski in-ski out condo before the storm hits.

There are plenty more pitfalls which the upscale New Yorkers of Big Sky fail to avoid, but you get the idea. And on the subject of caution, a playwright should be careful about making all four of her characters so consistently feckless, shallow and narcissistic even if she plans to smack them in the face with a kind of cosmic come-uppance. Although if wine-guzzling and buffalo-massacring are to be on the agenda, a playwright can do a lot worse than hiring director John Rando &emdash; who knows his way around new plays, satire and domestic disturbance &emdash; to strike the right tone.

Under Rando's guidance and with Jon Tenney pacing a pitch-perfect cast, Big Sky is by turns scabrous and emotionally wrenching while remaining consistently very funny. The play's "ick" quotient may be considerable and the conclusion frustratingly enigmatic, but Gersten-Vassilaros plots well and pulls no punches. The Geffen production is a grim delight.

Upper-middle-class couple Jack (Tenney) and Jen (Jennifer Westfeldt) has been married 20 years, but the future does not look bright for the next 20. The play opens with Jen on a clandestine cell phone call with her lover. She and Jack are staying at a 5-star resort in Aspen while the posh new firm that is paying the tab on the vacation woos Jack. He's been out of work for awhile and this opportunity may be his best and last chance at getting back in the game. Also sharing the luxury condo are Jack and Jen's 17-year-old daughter, Tessa (Emily Robinson), who is guarding a few choice secrets of her own, and Jen's longtime friend, Jonathan (Arnie Burton) who nurses hopes that she and Jack will continue to bankroll his home furnishings business once Jack gets back on his feet. Unbeknownst to Jack, once the new job comes through, Jen expects to leave her marriage.

Jonathan, who is still mourning the death of his partner, is frequently the one hearing Jen, Tessa and Jack confide their secrets, occasionally over an expensive glass of wine or a joint. Jonathan may be a droll best friend to Jen, and a lovable uncle to Tessa, but on this vacation from hell, he finds himself placed in a hugely uncomfortable position. A snowstorm is brewing. Tessa is off to party with the daughter of Jack's new boss and bad things are poised to happen to everybody. br>
These impending train wrecks are fun to watch in large measure because Gersten-Vassilaros implies that this family kind of has it coming. Whether because of misplaced values (Jack), the dreaminess brought on by a mid-life crisis (Jen), or the bad judgment and stupidity of youth (Tessa), the members of this model family are clueless. These are creatures of privilege, and the playwright seems to enjoy seeing them brought down a few notches.

Jen is perhaps the easiest to dislike. Westfeldt locates the character's callowness, making Jen sad, hypocritical and the worst person to turn to in the event of a crisis. Tessa seems to be in little danger of following either parent's example, but with a giddy Robinson doling out hugs and sharing dirty cell phone picture, the character comes across as pretty superficial as well. Robinson's interactions with a frequently horrified Burton (whose Jonathan calls to mind an older and more mellowed out Sean Hayes) have some nice warmth.

Ultimately, the play pivots on Jack. In Tenney's hands, the character is still clinging to whatever empire-conquering dreams he may have harbored in his youth. While he's watching everything go to pot, Jack is trying to save his family and purge his soul. Jack is ultimately a comically tragic role, and Tenney, his aging leading man good looks used to good ironic effect, always keeps him interesting.

Gersten-Vassilaros's ending will, I suspect, leave some viewers confused and/or frustrated. None of these characters particularly invites redemption, and the cosmos certainly isn't willing to hand out any breaks. The curtain comes down on a family huddled in darkness against the elements, sitting around a handmade fire with no idea of how long that blaze will last or when the power will resume. Is this bleak? More than a little bit, but we have certainly enjoyed quite a few laughs along the way at their expense.

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Big Sky by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros
Directed by John Rando
Cast: Arnie Burton, Emily Robinson, Jon Tenney and Jennifer Westfeldt
Costume Design: Denitsa Bliznakova
Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Lighting Design: Joshua Epstein
Sound Design: Jon Gottlieb
Production Stage Manager: Elizabeth A. Brohm
Casting Director: Phyllis Schuringa Plays through July 17, 2016 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 208-5454,
Running time: Two hours, with one 15 minute intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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