Will family ties survive the truth?

By Ande Jacobson

Dragon Productions Theatre Company’s current play, Richard Dresser’s Wonderful World, tests family bonds, or at least stretches them a little in this dark comedy revolving around the strained relationship between two brothers.  The story shows what can happen when the social contract is violated, and truth is used as a weapon.

Max (Jason Arias) and Barry (Kyle Wood) are grown brothers.  Max is happily looking forward to marrying his girlfriend Jennifer (Carlye Pollack) until, in a moment of reflection at his current state of happiness, he bares his soul to her admitting that not all that long ago he killed her in his fantasies.  Horrified, Jennifer grabs her coat and runs headlong into Barry at the door.  Barry and his wife Patty (ej Taylor) were invited for dinner, but Patty is nowhere in sight.

Barry informs Max and Jennifer that Patty was fuming at home, hurt that she wasn’t included in Max’s dinner invitation.  Max assures Barry that both of them were invited as he and Jennifer take turns telling Barry “I love Patty, but ____,” filling in the blank with digs about Patty’s flawed personality traits as they try to offer truthful suggestions on how Barry should extract himself from Patty’s tyrannical reign.

A little later in the story, Patty embarks on a “scorched-earth” campaign of razor-sharp truth-telling leaving no secret untold.  To be fair, they all disclose truths that would be better left unspoken.

And so begins the downward spiral of miscommunication and misunderstanding taking us on a simultaneously comedic and twisted journey borne of long-held secrets, differing perspectives, and varying versions of truth.  Miscommunication is endemic as we later discover when we meet Lydia (Shareen Merriam), Max and Barry’s mother.  It seems that even the boys’ early recollections of their childhood and of their parents’ relationship are in dispute, and neither Max nor Barry knows the full story.

Director Susannah Greenwood has staged an interesting production striking a nice balance between the inherent satire and the dysfunctional family dynamic.  Opening night, she was surprised at some of the audience reaction saying that there were laughs in places that she and the cast didn’t think were funny.  In a show with so many layers, much of the reaction is dependent on personal experience, and that can fluctuate widely from night to night and from person to person.

Arias and Pollack work well together with Arias portraying a cool-headed, likeable brother and boyfriend, trying to please everyone after sticking his foot in his mouth.  He’s got that sheepish look down, both with Pollack as he confesses his fantasy from earlier in their relationship, and later with the entire family following disclosure of an indiscretion his character would rather not have revealed.

Pollack’s Jennifer is initially manic, flighty, and vulnerable as she’s preyed upon by everyone, but later she gains strength and purpose and calms down as she connects with Lydia in a most unlikely fashion.  It’s intriguing to watch Pollack’s transformation.

Wood and Arias banter back and forth.  Wood is at first bombastic, the big brother lording his success over Max.  His delivery is confident and smooth, but he shows us the chink in his armor.  Through Wood’s carriage and verbiage, we later come to understand Barry’s depths of despair over his life choices and inner conflicts.

Taylor is tough as she maintains Patty’s façade of fierceness and control in Act 1.  Wearing heels to give her a height advantage over her fellow actors, she carries herself with determination and strength.  Her character is written to be an extreme narcissist, and Taylor captures this, trying hard not to head too far over the top.  She makes an interesting shift when, later in Act 2, her character shows Jennifer a momentary vulnerable side during a particularly stressful story arc.

Merriam appears convincingly lost in thought, her character off in her own world part of the time, but she’s shrewd.  Lydia has some dark secrets, and a fascination with clocks and Merriam’s facial expressions are priceless.  Even when she’s not speaking, we can see the wheels turning in her head.

Neal Ormond designed the creative set that covers nine distinct locations using a rotating center structure with three angled walls, two of which are visible at any one time.  One configuration has a window and a door, another has two doors, and a third has one door and a removable awning.  The cast smoothly rotates the structure to the proper facing and adds various wall decorations and furniture to finish out Max and Jennifer’s apartment, a local tavern, Jennifer’s office, Patty’s office, Lydia’s apartment, Barry and Patty’s house, two outdoor locations, and a hospital waiting room.  A particularly nice touch is the addition of several clocks adorning the walls and table in Lydia’s apartment, all set to different times, at least one with the hands annoyingly misaligned.

Sound designer James Kasyan uses a pleasant selection of folk/pop music to cover scene changes.  He also adds several different clock chimes in the various scenes within Lydia’s apartment.

Entertaining, though depending on one’s personal experience, possibly either a little too close to home or completely nonsensical at times, this Dragon production is worth the trip.  If nothing else, many in the audience will revel in their own Wonderful World, thankful that their families aren’t as off kilter as this one.

What:  Richard Dresser’s Wonderful World

Where:  Dragon Productions Theatre located at:  535 Alma Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301.

When:  Thursdays – Sundays through 17 June 2012.

See http://www.dragonproductions.net or call 650-493-2006 for more information.

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