Alcoholism, drug addition, childhood abuse, homophobia, racism, and murder would hardly seem a recipe for laughter, yet despite its dramatic underpinnings, Gary Lennon’s World Premiere A Family Thing turns out to be one of the funniest shows in town. It’s also one of the best acted, and one L.A. playgoers in search of a dark, gritty, yet thoroughly entertaining hour-and-a-half of theater won’t want to miss.
A horrendous childhood involving prostitution and drugs and other assorted crimes and vices has left deep scars on the brothers Burns.
Eldest sibling Frank (Saverio Guerra) is not only “between jobs,” he’s addicted to drugs and alcohol and hookers, and coming close to losing his sanity in the bargain. He’s also guilty of having ratted out his younger brother Jim to the police, thereby sending him to jail for five years, and as for his youngest brother Sean, well you’d best not bring up “that faggot” when Frank is around.
Then there’s middle brother Jim (Johnny Messner), a free man today after half a decade in prison and bent and determined to a) get even with the older brother who ratted on him and b) to make good his threat to kill the younger brother whose sexual orientation is a pink stain on Burns family name (as if it could get any more stained).
With older brothers like Frank and Jim, it’s no wonder that Sean (Sean Wing), despite his success as a writer, has decided to jump off a bridge. After all, one or the other of his violence-prone siblings is bound to off him sooner rather than later, so why not beat them to it?
Fortunately for Sean, a life coach named Joe Wheeler (Darryl Stephens) just happens to be walking by said bridge in time to talk Sean off the railing, and since Joe happens also to be a drop-dead gorgeous African-American hunk (and the sweetest thing ever), Sean soon finds himself not simply still alive and breathing but alive and breathing and kickin’ it in bed with Joe.
Sean and Joe aren’t the only couple to hook up lickety-split in A Family Thing. Jim’s consultation with sassy blonde Louise (Elizabeth Regen), whose job it is to help ex-cons reintegrate themselves into society, soon leads to love (or at least something resembling it), and if Frank doesn’t end up coupled with prostitute Tess (Maria Cina), it may have something to do with the torch he still carries for Liz (Andrea Grano), the mother of his autistic son.
Did I mention that A Family Thing is a comedy, or something in the vicinity? Because it most certainly is, the laughs coming fast and furious thanks to a cast of quirky yet real characters who keep saying the darnedest things, and thanks also to Chris Fields’ incisive direction and one razor-sharp performance after another.
It’s a tossup as to which older Burns brother is the looser cannon, but regardless of who is the more potentially out of control of the two, both Guerra and Messner do bravura work. Wing is terrific too as the sweeter, gentler brother, digging deep into Sean’s lifetime of pain. A marvelously appealing Stephens is the boyfriend any gay man in his right mind would want to have … and keep. As for the ladies, Regen is one red-hot ball of fire as tough-talking yet vulnerable Louise, Grano gives us a gritty, wounded Liz, and Cina’s excellent Tess defies any preconceived notions we might have about her character’s line of work. Paul Caramagno completes the cast effectively as Louise’s brother Ted.
On a less positive note, Echo Theater Company does both its actors and its audience members a disservice by not including cast headshots in the program. Stephen Gifford’s set design has just the right, dark, gritty feel to match Lennon’s subject matter, and transforms quickly from locale to locale with the rearrangement of a few chairs and a table, its prominent center-stage double bed getting quite a workout by just about everyone in the cast. Matt Richter’s lighting is once again an atmospheric winner, with Drew Dalzell’s edgy sound design setting place and mood from the opening scene when you’d swear a train was passing on the rails above would-be suicide jumper Sean. Kathryn Poppen’s costumes are excellent character definers. Credit goes also to fight choreographer Matt Turner, since as might be imagined, these brothers play rough.
A Family Thing is produced by Lauren Bass and director Fields. Julie Ann Harris is production stage manager.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from A Family Thing, but based on Echo Theater’s past productions, Wing’s and Stephens’ presence in the cast, and its potentially exciting subject matter, it seemed worth checking out. Performances and writing did not disappoint, but what made A Family Thing a memorable thing for this reviewer was just how much comedy Gary Lennon mined from some dark and twisted lives.
Stage 52, 5299 West Washington Blvd., Los Angeles.
February 17, 2013
Photos: Danielle Larsen