Hermitically Sealed is both the title of Kathryn Graf’s compelling new family drama and an apt description of the way 40something caterer Tessie May has chosen to live the life she shares with her teenage male offspring—like an egg, “safe and sound in its own little world.”

To provide any further explanation as to why the term “hermetically sealed” describes Tessie’s life so perfectly would be to give away at least one major plot point Graf reveals ever so slowly, and Hermetically Sealed is a play best seen with as little foreknowledge as possible.

Suffice it to say that like any mother of teen boys, Tessie (Gigi Bermingham) has her hands full. She browbeats gay older son Jimmy (Wolfie Trausch) about the nightly joyrides he takes with “that Pritchard boy, popping pills, with your dicks hanging out,” all the while entreating the nineteen-year-old not to be leaving her anytime soon.

Then there’s fifteen-year-old Conor (Nicholas Podany), who, unlike his older brother, scarcely seems to leave his room, preferring instead to spend his days playing violent video games (“Die, Motherfucker!”), that is when he’s not ordering his mom to bring him a sandwich or a coke or a fresh supply of Double A batteries.

Conor does have his good side. He’s willing when coaxed to wrap the food Tessie prepares at home but no longer delivers, her boss Dale coming by whenever there are lemon bars or peach cakes to be picked up. Still, don’t get Conor started on Dale and her husband, who share the same first name and have chosen to go by Dale “Sr.” and Dale “Jr.” (“Two fat assholes who think they’re just so whacky, the kooky husband and the kooky wife with the same kooky name” is how Conor puts it.)

With sons like Jimmy and Conor giving her grief and Dale Jr. constantly on her case, it’s lucky for Tessie that she’s got the music of Verdi and Puccini to raise her spirits. But that’s life, isn’t it, even one that’s hermetically sealed?

It takes a good long while and plenty of small talk and onstage food preparation for Graf’s drama to get to its big reveal, and you may find yourself a bit antsy midway through for something to happen, not that it’s anything less than a pleasure to watch the verbal sparring between stage vet Bermingham and just-turned-fifteen newcomer Podany. Things slow down too when the obnoxious Dale Jr. and her Porky Piggish husband arrive. Dale Jr. has a well-written and not inappropriate monolog about Nancy Meyers women’s movies and the director’s “bravery to expose the super creature in all of us,” but it goes on too long simply because a little of the female Dale goes a long, long way.

Still, despite whatever fixable flaws there are in Graf’s World Premiere script (a little less chitchat and a lot less Dale Jr. would help), Hermetically Sealed ends up a powerful ninety minutes of theater. Graf’s characters are readily recognizable and heartbreakingly real, and the relationships she’s created, particularly Tessie and Conor’s, are ones anyone with family can relate to.

Under Joel Polis’s polished direction, the Katselas Theatre Company’s World Premiere of Hermetically Sealed features all-around terrific performances. Julia Prud’homme is fearless in not softening Dale Jr., a woman who grates like a zillion fingernails on a great big blackboard. Brendan Patrick Connor is spot-on as Dale Sr., whose seeming good nature hides a good deal of ick inside. Trausch is such a charmer as Jimmy that it’s no wonder Tessie puts up with his shit and wants to keep him around.

Still, it is a pair of performances that make Hermetically Sealed a must-see for anyone who loves great acting.

Bermingham is to L.A. theater what Annette Bening is to the movies—an actress who can do no wrong. She can be smart, she can be sophisticated, she can be witty, and in Hermetically Sealed, not surprisingly, she delivers one of the year’s best performances. Bermingham gives us a Tessie who is warm and quirky and vulnerable and achingly fragile. Oh, and she does it all while preparing one platter of food after another practically nonstop.

As for Podany, it scarcely seems possible that a high school sophomore can do such powerful work at just-turned-fifteen. Then again, just last summer Podany more than held his own opposite Hal Linden and Christina Pickles in On Golden Pond. Conor is a considerably tougher (and a whole lot bigger) role than Golden Pond’s Billy, one that requires Podany to turn on a dime from irritating to sympathetic, and from testosterone fueled rage to heart-rending tears, feats which the gifted young actor achieves without missing a beat or an iota of realness.

(Note to director: Star turns like Bermingham’s and Podany’s deserve individual curtain calls.)

With Jeff McLaughlin (who’s won three Scenies and just about every other award in the book) doing both set and lighting design this time round, it’s no wonder that Hermetically Sealed looks great, from Tessie’s detailed, functioning kitchen Conor’s cluttered teenager’s room, thanks also to property master Heather Wynters. Christopher Moscatiello’s opera-rich sound design is another winner from this talented designer. Adding to the overall technical excellence of this production are fight choreographer Mike K. Mahaffey, production stage manager Christopher Hoffman, and stage manager Colin Grossman. Casting is by Amy Lieberman, C.S.A. Hermetically Sealed is produced by Gary Grossman. Adam Rotenberg is associate producer.

As a play, Hermetically Sealed could still use some tightening, some cuts, some rewriting. Even so, it is impressive work, and when you add Bermingham and Podany to the mix, something well worth experiencing.

Kastelas Theatre Company, The Skylight Theatre, 1816 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
October 30, 2011
Photos: Ed Krieger

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