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A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
Parasite Drag

Parasite Drag = Aeroneutical term also called parasite resistance for the part of the drag on an aircraft that is contributed by nonlifting surfaces, such as fuselage.

"In one family you can get five different versions of the same story. "— Joellen, one of the people presenting her version of her husband's ueber dysfunctional family saga.
Parasite Drag
Elizabeth Aspenlieder & Jason Asprey as Joellen and Ronnie
(Photo credit: Kevin Sprague)
The title of Mark Roberts' tragi-comedy now in its East Coast premiere at Shakespeare & Co's second stage symbolizes the traumas that have haunted two brothers and their sister. Roberts, has used his experience as a TV sitcom writer (Two and a Half Men, Mike & Molly) to his take on the ever popular dysfunctional family drama work as a combination of comic soap opera and gritty Midwestern House of Atreus tragedy.

Roberts has done a good job of letting each scene peel another layer off the rotten core of the onion representing his ueber dysfunctional saga, with four of the play's six scenes the sort of meaty duets that allow the actors to really give their acting chops a workout. Josh Aaron McKay and Jason Asprey as brothers Gene and Ronnie, and Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Kate Abbruzzese as their wives, certainly make the most of this opportunity. While the men's sister who is dying of AIDS is never seen, she is the root cause of their troubled psyches. Director Stephen Rothman dexterously steers the actors through the segues from the comic sitcomesque to despairing and ultimately melodramatic tragedy.

So there you have the good news. However, despite the splendid performances pm one of the most impressively apt and nicely detailed sets I've seen at this venue (Bravo Patrick Brennan), this is not the dysfunctional play to make us forget its many memorable and more tightly focused forbears — to name just a few: Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Harold Pinter's The Homecoming, Sam Shepherd' Buried Child, Tracy Letts' August: Osage County). Mr. Rothman followed S&C's Artistic Director Tony Simotes' opening night welcoming address with his own audience warm-up speech. His reference to two older women he saw leaving at a preview intermission, presumably because they were offended by the heavily F-word peppered dialogue, was a caveat to be prepared for an X-rated play. My guess is that those walkouts were less attributable to squeamishness about the strong language than not buying into the playwright's self-indulgent overload of symbolism and dysfunctional elements.

Not content with a family member's imminent death to bring about a tumultuous family reunion, Mr. Roberts has taken an everything but the kitchen sink approach to dramatize the emotional turmoil and fraught undercurrents that have made brother Gene,in whose home the play unfolds, a fanatical Christian, and his older brother Ronnie a profanity spouting non-believer. Their undigested memories include incest, drug addiction, self mutilation and suicide. Differences about end of life decisions vis-a-vis the dying woman instantly establish that Gene and Joellen's marriage is also in its death throes. The existing husband and wife tensions are bound to kick into high gear with the arrival of Ronnie and his sexy wife Susie, especially since Joellen's teenaged crush on Ronnie provides further ammunition for melodramatic complications. And in case the rather clunky title weren't enough of a metaphor, there's talk from the get-go about an about to erupt tornado to foreshadow a full-scale meltdown between the troubled brothers.

While the playwright is generous with piling on revelations of ever more disturbing examples of familial dysfunction, his plot and character development relies more on in your face shock tactics than subtlety. Luxkily this production is blessed with an ensemble talented enough and totally committed to making the difficult comic and extremely dark dualities work.

All four actors manage to be hilarious when they sit down to a Kentucky Fried chicken dinner that McCabe's consistently holier than thou Gene insists on prefacing with a lengthy prayer that Jason Asprey's wonderfully irreverent Ronnie reminds him is "just dinner. . .not a fucking revival meeting." Asprey is also quite amusing as he explains why the F-word as his preferred verbal choice and is stunningly consumed by rage in the concluding confrontation. Aspenlieder, who's best known for her virtuosity with comic roles, gives one of her most nuanced performances as the desperately unhappy and sexually frustrated Joellen. Abbruzzesse is terrific as the Southern bimbo who's a lot smarter than her initial entrance would have us believe. Her Susie is the play's most sympathetic and only well- adjusted character. The two women get to play the best scene — a breakfast at the top of the second act that has them browsing through family albums and quite touchingly steers us to this play's essence, the might have beens that the overheated climax presents as irretrievable.

While Parasite Drag was enough of a hit in last year's Studio Festival of Plays to seed this summer long production with this stellar cast, director Rothman is something of a cockeyed optimist in his view of it as being powerful enough to join famous dysfunctional family dramas that have had the "legs" to merit Pulitzer Prizes.

Parasite Drag by Mark Roberts
Directed by Stephen Rothman
Cast: Kate Abbruzzese (Susie), Elizabeth Aspenlieder (Joellen), Jason Asprey (Ronnie), , Josh Aaron McCabe (Gene),
Sets: Patrick Brennan
Costumes: Esther Van Eek
Lighting: Steven Ball
Composer/Sound Designer: Joe Cerqua
Stage Manager: Zachary Krohn
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with 1 intermission
June 20–September 2
S&Co's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 6/22 press opening

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