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Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review

I want you to come home. Please. Please, I'm sorry. I blew it. I blew it and I don't know how to make it better. It's beyond me. It is. I'm sorry. --- Enid. Either because she's sick from pulverizing and smoking her mentally ill father's pills or because her mother's remorse sickens her, Enid's rebellious teen aged daughter Jenny can only reply "I feel like throwing up".
Shawn Hatosy, Mark Setlock, Anna Paquin, Ana Gasteyer & Larry Bryggman
Shawn Hatosy, Mark Setlock, Anna Paquin, Ana Gasteyer & Larry Bryggman (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Paul Weitz, whose main success has been as the co-writer for the film Antz and co-director of the raunchy American Pie films and the more sensitive About A Boy, knows enough about playwriting to make sure that the gun he plants in the opening scene of his Roulette does go off. The man with the gun is Jon, an apparently successful business man with a less than successful family life and the bullet sends his already fragile mental equilibrium into the realm of certifiable neurological disaster.

Another Greek tragedy suburban style? Not really. Weitz uses the events that lead up to and follow Jon's game of Russian Roulette mostly as a setup for dark comedy from the various interactions between the play's six characters: Jon's wife Enid. . . son Jock (a fitting name for a 19-year-old with more brawn than brains). . . daughter Jenny (a smart-alecky 17-year-old with a taste for liquor, drugs and sex with her never seen boyfriend). . . Virginia, the childlike neighbor . . . her husband Steve, an entrepreneur whose sure-to-fail business ventures leave him with plenty of free time for an affair with Enid.

Weitz seems to be aiming for David Lindsay-Abaire's loopy depictions of ordinary but eccentric Americans trying to navigate the sea of confusion we call modern life. The character who comes closest to validating this comparison is Virginia, especially with Ana Gasteyer, the Saturday Night Live veteran who appeared in Lindsay-Abaire's Kimberly Akimbo (our review) playing her with droll, fidgety naivete.

Larry Bryggman, who is beginning to rival Brian Murray as one of New York's most consistently excellent and regularly employed character actors, also taps into the Lindsay-Abairian quirkiness of a man who after years of contented conformity suddenly sees the life he's lived as "an arbitrary construct". You might say that the gun that he bought years earlier after a series of neighborhood robberies and that now fascinates him so is indeed his escape ticket to a private world. Instead of killing him, it kills the stressed-out, disengaged real Jon, and lets the amiable mental patient he becomes fantasize a life of limitless adventures and romance.

Unfortunately, satirizing real illness tends to make jokes fall flat and rob the satire of its edge and purpose. This is borne out here. Bryggman handles Jon's constant personality changes and non sequiturs in the second act with endearing lunacy and flawless timing. But the humor wear thinner and thinner so that you are less engaged in Jon's story than remembering his heartbreaking display of memory loss in Proof (Review). And while Weitz's dialogue does provide laughs, Roulette squanders its opportunity to have something to say by focusing on cartoonish situations. Without the je ne sais quoi that makes an impact on your emotions, the laughs leave you with a hollow feeling.

Trip Cullman steers the six characters through their farcical interchanges with a steady hand and at a sustained tempo but except at the very end, he fails to help the play -- or its characters -- rise above its unrealized possibilities. Anna Paquin, who made such an auspicious stage debut in The Glory of Living (review) is not nearly as impressive as the rebellious Jenny who looks and acts as if she were one of the drugged-out girls in Kander and Ebb's Cabaret. Shawn Hatosy, as the most sympathetic character does his best to give some depth to the jock-y Jock who desperately wants to bring his dad back to reality and keep the family together, but he's pretty much stuck in his sit-com persona. His instinct for doing the right thing but never getting it right is amusingly illustrated when he hauls out a floppy old baseball mitt to jog Jon's recollections of their father-son backyard games and Jon's " I do remember. . ." is followed by "Of course I remember ! This is the mitt I was wearing in the 1969 World Series."

Mark Setlock deserves a special award for stepping in as Steve when Grant Shaud became ill. He's letter perfect in his lines, but like Jenny and Jock, Steve is too broadly drawn and stereotypical. It falls to Leslie Lyles to play the least developed role of Enid. To her credit, she injects considerable feeling into the clueless woman who has no apparent job yet hasn't found the time to understand her children, her husband or herself. She lives in an upscale Westchester suburb and complains about the potentially harmful ingredients in Jock's cereal yet she serves fried liver to dinner guests. When, in an attempt to get her delinquent daughter to come home, she says. "I blew it. I blew it and I don't know how to make it better". she could be speaking for the way the playwright underwrote her character.

This is the worthy Ensemble Studio Theater's first outing in a larger and more conveniently located theater than its home on West 52nd Street. The move has been supported with considerable resources to make this a smart looking production. This is reflected in Takeshi Kata's sleek suburban living room-dining room-foyer. Except for the sneakers lined up near the doorway there's an apt absence of anything that would indicate there's a lot of close family stuff going on here. The farcical flavor is well supported with the requisite doors as well as a hallway and staircase. However, it seems an unnecessary and, in fact, ill-conceived expense to have half the living room wall roll open for a scene in Jon's office. That office scene itself is interesting in that it has Jon hinting at things that are repeated in his mad mode; but it doesn't work well physically since people sitting in the front third of the theater are basically in the same heads tilted up position as audiences in the front row at a musical.

There are enough okay elements in this two hours to make one want to see more of Mr. Weitz's work on stage. As it stands, Roulette shows him to be still be an intern as an auteur-farceur who can bring sensitivity and humor to his diagnosis of the human condition.

Written byPaul Weitz
Directed by Trip Cullman
Cast: Larry Bryggman (Jon), Ana Gasteyer (Virginia), Shawn Hatosy (Jock), Leslie Lyles (Enid), Anna Paquin (Jenny) and Mark Setlock (Steve).
Set Design: Takeshi K5ka
Costume Design: Alejo Vieti
Lighting Design: Greg MacPherson
Sound Design: Aural Fixation
Composer: Michael Friedman
Running time: 2 hours plus one 10-minute intermission
Ensemble Studio Theatre at John Houseman, 450 W. 42nd St., (9th/10th Avs), (212/239-6200)
1/30/04 to 3/14/04; opening 2/18/04.
Monday, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 pm, with matinees Saturday at 2 pm and Sunday at 3pm.
Tickets, $49.50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/12 performance

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