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A CurtainUp Review

By Deborah Blumenthal

It is often said that what Henry Ford was to cars, the Levitts were to housing. — Ted Steinberg, The New York Times, 2005
Susan Bennett, Todd Lawson, Tristan Colton
(Photo: Dixie Sheridan)
Following the end of the Second World War, the United States became home to a brand new, revolutionary suburban housing concept— the series of planned communities known as "Levittown," after their creator, Abraham Levitt. The speedily constructed communities consisted of thousands of nearly identical houses intended to provided affordable homes for sale to recently returned war vets and their families, and to encourage domestic distraction from the atrocities of war. Over time the Levittown houses have become an American cultural history benchmark, a profoundly influential moment in suburban life, and a time-honored symbol of post-war America. So you'd think that a play of the same name would be something of a history lesson.

Marc Palmieri's new play takes places in Levittown, New York, the first of the four Levittown communities, in Long Island's Nassau County. Though it is named for and exists in a locale with a fascinating history behind it, the play barely makes good on the tools at its disposal. It's not about Levittown — it merely takes place there. And perhaps a primary reason for its failure to be compelling is its failure to adequately engage with or hinge on the history beneath its namesake. After opening with a brief rumination on the study of history and an explanation, from one character to another about what makes their house unique, the subject is all but completely dropped — swapped for a run-of-the-mill dysfunctional family play that could have taken place anywhere.

Kevin Briggs has just returned a bit early from college, moving for the first time into his family's "new" home, which is actually his grandfather's current and mother's childhood home, a Levittown house. His sister Colleen deflects his complaints about its tiny size with an explanation of its significance and what it meant to veterans like their grandfather. Colleen, finally emerging from a difficult, disturbed past, is about to be engaged, but the celebration is punctuated by Kevin's well-intentioned, yet ill-advised, attempts to reconcile his sister with their estranged father who she has not seen in six years. The basic threads of the story are fine, if somewhat cliché, but they ultimately fall victim to being wrapped up in a play that is not structurally sound.

If the play is not about about Levittown, it's hard to really say what it is about. Big themes, questions, and concepts meander in and out, making brief appearances and even more abrupt departures throughout the play. Palmieri brings in a great deal of religious imagery, incorporates war stories and (rather effective) flashbacks, all while still trying to hold up a story with many complications. But none of these things are firmly connected, and so what could be quite provocative instead ends up simply feeling disjointed. Palmieri seems to be trying to mix so much together that the end result leaves us wondering why they're there. Yet, all these ll ideas far too important to be made extraneous.

The actors are all serviceable; Tristan Colton is likeable enough as the genial, if misguided Kevin, managing to maintain a fairly solid performance even through a bizarre twist in his character's arc. Curzon Dobell plays his father with a vaguely creepy sense of repression, nsinuating that he has something awful to hide from his first moment on stage. The notable standout is Tyler Pierce, as Kevin and Colleen's cousin Joey, the obvious, often blunt comic relief, but the only one of this bunch who manages to be at all sympathetic.

The highly publicized set is undoubtedly the star of the show. Set designer Michele Spadaro, in what might appear to be a cue from August: Osage County, has reconstructed an almost to-scale model of a Levittown house with a family room downstage center. The impressive accuracy, however, is often also illogical as it obstructs parts of the action for audience members. It does nevertheless link the story to its setting in a way the text fails to do. Since an integral part of the Levittown house was the importance its structure placed on the idea of a living room as a place far from the outside world to focus on the family, putting a troubled family in an environment where the family room was such an innovation seems an ideal choice.

Of the characters, the grandfather's history is what grounds the play most in its own history. He is a decorated war veteran, but has kept the truth of his past concealed from the family. This house is his because of his service, and thus the memories it brings him are often haunting. It is also fitting that his moments of reminiscence occur while he is seated in his living room chair but even this intended place of escape cannot fully erase traumatic experience. Yet, here again, it seems a shame that Levittown isn't at least somewhat more historically minded. That's not to say that it should feel like a textbook lecture, but neither should it go out of its way not to examine the generational connection to the house. A closer look at its function in the family's dysfunction might have made for a significantly more interesting play.

Levittown by Marc Palmieri
Directed by George Demas
Cast: Susan Bennett (Colleen), Tristan Colton (Kevin), Curzon Dobell (Richard), Dane Knell (Edmund), Todd Lawson (Brian), Tyler Pierce (Joe), Deborah Tranelli (Kathleen)
Sets: Michele Spadaro
Costumes: Jennifer Bayly
Sound: Steve Fontaine
Lighting: Sonia Baidya
Stage Manager: Dewey Caddell
Theatre at Saint Clement's, (212)-352-3101,
From 7/8/09; opening 7/13/09, closing 8/1/09
Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 5 p.m.
Reviewed by Deborah Blumenthal based on 7/10/09 performance
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