Three-time Best Actress Emmy-winner Barbara Bain and well-known film/TV actor D.B. Sweeney are among the baker’s dozen performers headlining Thicker Than Water, an entertaining, perceptive evening of one-acts by Dale Griffiths Stamos at Santa Monica’s Promenade Playhouse.

The family-themed playlets, running an average of ten to fifteen minutes each, range from the comedic to the dramatic to the political, three of them starring Bain, best known for her starring roles in the 1960s/’70s TV hits Mission Impossible and Space: 1999, and one featuring Sweeney, of Eight Men Out, The Cutting Edge, and Lonesome Dove fame.

Out Of The Rubble stars Bain as septuagenarian Louise, who has chosen to spend the day of her late husband’s one-year memorial service combing through the burnt-out rubble of the home she shared with him for fifty years, to the consternation of her adult children Teri (Maggie Grant) and Nicholas (Sweeney).

In The Dinner Guest, young wife Meredith (Molly Leland) has invited her husband’s work colleague Valerie (Julianna Robinson) over for a dinner-for-three, hubby Dan (Christopher Heltai) blissfully unaware that Meredith has caught on to his extramarital hanky-panky with the sexy blonde … and that she plans to put the hussy in her place.

Going Home, which features Bain as the wife of a man dying of cancer and Dennis Delsing as her grown-up son, puts a human face on a hot-button topic: At what point should family members allow a loved one to die with dignity, even if it means no longer prolonging his life (and his suffering) via the latest medical treatments and procedures?

A pair of adult sons follow their father to Las Vegas to find out why he’s skipped out on his birthday celebration in Birthday Escape. Ron (Christopher Karbo) and Tony (Christopher Eric Ruiz) can’t figure out why Herb (Bob Ebinger) would pick Vegas over his grandchildren. Herb sets them straight—and in no uncertain terms.

The battle for LGBT equality gets a personal face in Line In The Sand, which has wealthy parishioner Julia (D.J. Harner) threatening to take her money elsewhere when Episcopal priest (and longtime friend) Father Danner (John Henry Richardson) announces his intention to break off from the church and align himself with the Anglicans following the election of openly gay Bishop Gene Robinson. Over the course of conversation, it becomes clear that Julia has an intensely personal reason for opposing Danner’s decision.

Plenty Papaya has Bain and Grant returning as mother and daughter in decidedly droller mode than in Out Of The Rubble, with daughter Anna walking in on her stroke-surviving Mom mid-coitus with a half-naked octogenarian (Larry Robbins)—and finding her absolutely unapologetic about their geriatric sex play.

Playwright Stamos proves adept at creating believable, easily recognizable characters, warts and all, brought to life here by an all-around tiptop cast. With such uniformly fine performances, it’s hard to play favorites, but here are a few.

Leland’s take-charge wife is so richly (and hilariously) drawn that it proves a textbook example of how to take a well-written character and burn up the stage with her, Heltai and Robinson providing terrific support. Delsing’s anguished son is quite devastatingly drawn and performed, and Harner’s and Richardson’s confrontation so electric that it may have you on the edge of your seat. Finally, there is the versatile and charismatic Bain, putting her personal stamp on three very different women, with a grateful pat on the back to Stamos for writing so many marvelous roles for sixty-plus actors.

Multi-talented powerhouse Grant has skillfully/zestfully directed four of the six short plays, Dan Berkowitz proving equally skillful/zestful helming the two in which Grant stars.

A bare-bones staging (there is no scenic design, simply furniture moved on and off a black box stage) gives Thicker Than Water more the feel of an actors’ showcase than a fully-staged production, though quite a showcase it is. John Beckwith’s lighting and sound design add professionalism to the evening’s no-frills look. Thicker Than Water is a co-production of Three Roses Players and Venice Sky Productions.

With Mother’s Day weekend at hand and Father’s Day just around the corner, Thicker Than Water couldn’t arrive at a more auspicious time with its insightful, alternately amusing and dramatic looks at family life in 21st Century America.

The Promenade Playhouse, 1404 3rd Street Promenade, Santa Monica.
–Steven Stanley
May 6, 2011

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