A Family Thing is a play about how three brothers and their respective lovers attempt to create a family out of the ones they were given. Jimmy is coming home from prison after serving years for armed robbery and Sean and Frank spend a big chunk of their time trying to arm themselves in anticipation of his return. Needless to say, these are three brothers who over the years have found ways of not being very brotherly. Jim is violent. Sean is gay. Frank is a drug addict. And none of them talk to one another. In its world premiere at Stage 52 in Los Angeles, the Echo Theater Company’s gives us a production of Peabody Award winning writer Gary Lennon that at times is extremely moving and at others very funny.
The play begins with Sean (Sean Wing) who fearing that Jim will put a bullet in him for being gay has decided to jump off a bridge. Before he does, Joe (Darryl Stephens) comes to his rescue convincing him not to jump. Joe then becomes Sean’s lover and ultimately his bedrock. Jimmy (Johnny Messner) has also found love in Louise (Elizabeth Regen), his probation counselor, first by bedding her then by beating up her snotty brother. When Jimmy finds Sean he orders him to find Frank (Saverio Guerra) so they can all ‘catch up.’ Frank, who has been fired from his job, is high out of his mind on cocaine and romancing (those not to completion) a prostitute (Maria Cena) while his wife Liz (Andrea Grano) is at home tending to their autistic son. Sean finds him and Frank agrees to meet with Jimmy leading to the main conflict of the play, that is, the reunion of the blood family. All of this happens in one day, or afternoon.
The glue that holds this group together is their belief in family. As the title suggests, it is the major theme of the play. The one that these brothers have inherited is, to say the least, dysfunctional. Mom was a junkie and dad was physically and emotionally abusive. So for the brothers, making a family is more of a necessity than choice.
“The greatest family you can have,” says one character, “is the one you make for yourself.”
And the glue that the brothers use, the ways these brothers ‘make’ their family is fascinating. If love is the glue that they use, their version of love is based on two things: sex and violence.
That the brothers all find lovers who are self-help workers (Joe is a life-coach, Louise a counselor, and Liz a prostitute) is a little bit more than just poetical. Aside from satisfying a physical desire they also fill a psychological one. Climaxing in the act of sex is a gage by which each character understands love and it is not surprising that Sean and Joe’s is sensitive and caring (“We’re all in this together,” says Joe), Jim and Louise’s is wild (“Yeah, I’m fucking you,” says Jimmy), and Frank’s is unfulfilled (“Want to do some lines?”). Jimmy and Sean are able to attain orgasm, thus have successfully found a way manifest love to another person. Presumably, there achievement in that area will make it easier to communicate to one another. Frank, however, is unable to climax, i.e., to successfully share his love with another person, and thus must find other ways to satisfy his urges. Drugs and alcohol and self-loath become that way. Sexual fulfillment becomes a formula by which each brother presents love to the others.
In addition to all the physical violence (which there is plenty of), there is also the great search for a handgun that all of the brothers embark on. Sean trying to protect himself from Jimmy. Frank trying to protect himself from Jimmy and Sean. And Jimmy, seemingly, just trying to shoot either or both of his brothers. Communication has deteriorated to such a point that when the brothers now address one another, they do so fearfully, armed and ready to kill their kin. Violence, and the gun, become the way each brother prepares to meet the others. (Fortunately, the search for the gun is fruitless, but less fortunate is the violence that is inevitable.)
There are scenes in A Family Thing that are beautifully touching and well designed. The dialogue is brilliant and the performances are solid. Unfortunately, there is just not enough glue in this play to make it to be believable. To be clear, everything in this play is believable and so are most of the instances. But in the relatively short time span that the play operates in (a single day) it just feels like too much to allow. The play suffers from a dense and convoluted plot with devices seemingly in place just to build tension or get a laugh. If you can buy into it all, all is good. And when everything comes together these are complex and layered issues nicely fleshed out by the characters. The problem is getting to that point.
A Family Thing plays on weekends from February 16 – March 17.
For more information visit the Echo Theater Company’s website at: http://www.echotheatercompany.com