The message of Lindsey Ferrentino’s new play The Year to Come is something like “People can get used to anything.”
Maybe the author has more complicated ideas in mind but the La Jolla Playhouse production, herded along by director Anne Kauffman, says that and little more. Sort of c’est le vie.
The setting for most of the play is a dreary backyard retirement patio in Florida, complete with a tiny swimming pool complete with a pissing cherub complete with gilded locks. Good thing it’s screened-in since buzzards sometimes drop leftovers.
The play is introduced in a soliloquy by a mysteriously upbeat hefty woman who barely remembers to turn off her portable oxygen before she lights her cigarette. Her text is how nice things are going despite… well, here comes the play.
Which runs backwards in time, a la Kaufman and Hart’s Merrily We Roll Along or Harold Pinter’s Betrayal. It’s a parade of New Year’s Eves and the changes wrought over 20 years. Somebody illustrates with the old story of how to boil a frog by increasing the heat a degree a day until: voila! Boiled frog.
The frog story produces a solid laugh – “of course I don’t cook with boiled frogs!” – but does nothing much with the available climate-change analogy. And that’s the way such opportunities are handled throughout the play: Here’s the irony, do with it what you will. Presidents are mentioned from time to time as “the worst ever” to grim audience chuckles but no specific follow-up. Except a laugh-line: “I used up all my Hitler references on the wrong president.”
The author does have a casual way with letting everybody chuckle instead of attack. There is a growing catalogue of grim plays set among deteriorating families reunited for some event – Christmas, a marriage, a funeral – which yield a climax. Ferrentino tip-toes past all that. These are just folks coping. Except the lack of melodrama is not compensated for with interesting wit. The best family legend is the accidental use of a piece of beef for dishwashing, years earlier, instead of a sponge. Ya hadda be there, I guess.
But why these people? Instead of the people next door or in the next state? This family feels like one of those World War II foxhole movies where the platoon includes a big Texan, a Brooklyn wiseacre, the cracker marksman from Kentucky, etc., etc. Dad is a retired Long Island fireman of Cuban extraction. Mom is ex-princess Jew. There’s a black brother-in-law, a gay Muslim boyfriend, an intent watcher of Fox News, Asian infants, rock ‘n’ roll memories and the shadow of the Twin Towers. All flowing sluggishly toward a future not so dreaded as just uninteresting.
The result is a genial stroll through somebody else’s family album, with some laughs and some sympathetic shrugs. Kauffman’s staging gives the play a causal hominess much wiser than ominous tensions that don’t really hold up.
There isn’t anybody among the characters that I would bother spending an evening with. Peter Van Wagner is interesting as the old timer who plays cheap Elvis Pressley songs pretty well, but he’s gone before his story congeals. Jonathan Nichols’ Dad gives up his prejudices too easily while Jane Kaczmarek’s Mom dithers too vaguely. Marcia DeBonis is the wreck of an aunt, consistent at least. Ray Anthony Thomas must sell himself as a former stand-up comic without the help of before and after backstories. As a Manhattan male couple, Adam Chanler-Berat and Pomme Koch have the most playable parts and glow accordingly.
But really, who cares? This play could have done without the opening monologue or the closing question. In fact, it could have ended at intermission, leaving only a few questions unanswered. What might have been envisioned as “Ah, HA!” moments become, “Huh? Oh, yeah.”
Christopher Acebo’s scenery is dutifully dull, blended neatly with Lap Chi Chu’s lighting to suggest the humidity and staleness of Florida. But the costumes by Dede Ayite, not to mention the bodies within them, are keenly accurate accounts of the difference between a New Year’s Eve in Florida and the same date in, oh, say California.
(Continues in the UCSD Mandell Weiss Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, at 7 p.m. Sundays; and at 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 30, 2018.)