A charge of rape lodged against their college student son casts a pall over a Midwestern American couple’s Christmas Eve celebration in A Good Family, Marja-Lewis Ryan’s World Premiere drama that combines several of the elements that made her award-winning One In The Chamber a critical/popular hit last year—crisp writing, outstanding acting, edge-of-your-seat suspense—yet feels incomplete, and not simply for its hour-and-change running time.
Family festivities start out so cheerfully at the Suttons that an unsuspecting audience member might mistakenly anticipate a heartwarming Hallmark holiday dramedy ahead.
Mom Sara (Heidi Sulzman) has accidentally substituted salt for sugar in her Christmas cookies. Dad Matthew (John K. Linton) sports one of those god-awful red-and-green sweater vests that get ridiculed on Facebook, but seems all-in-all a cheerful, Ward Cleaver sort. Daughter Lacy (Kelli Anderson) has just enough sass and edge to suggest that of the two Sutton offspring, she was the more likely “handful” growing up. And clean-cut all-American Jack (Alec Frasier) seems the perfect Greg Brady type, a home-for-the-holidays college junior that any parents would be proud to call their own.
Joining the Suttons this Christmas Eve is Sara’s defense attorney younger sister Kerry (Lindsey Haun), whose bagful of wine suggests a fondness for the bottle, though no one is counting glasses in the Leave It To Beaver-meet-The Brady Bunch kind of family we’re getting to know before the phone rings and a call from the local police changes everything.
A female student at Jack’s college has apparently filed rape charges against the twenty-year-old, and the Suttons can expect police officers at their door within the next hour, that is unless Jack turns himself in of his own volition and prepares to spend at the very least the next twenty-four hours in jail.
Over the course of its remaining fifty-or-so minutes, A Good Family examines how each of its characters reacts to the news, whether in anger or disbelief or fear or denial or doubt, while exploring the various courses of action open to them as Internet reports of the accusations against an as-yet unnamed Jack become available to anyone with a smart phone.
There is much to rave about in Lewis’s companion piece One In The Chamber, not the least of which is the reunion of three of that production’s sensational stars, once again performing superbly under Ryan’s expert direction.
As a young man convinced that he has committed no crime, Frasier matches the deeply touching work that scored him a Breakout Performance Scenie for One In The Chamber. Sulzman gets less to do here than in her Best Lead Performance LADCC/Scenie-winning star turn in OITC, but she is again compelling as a mother willing to defend her son with the fierceness of a tigress. And Anderson, who played Sulzman’s daughter and Frasier’s sister in their previous collaboration, makes for a thoroughly authentic contemporary 20something, refreshingly unafraid to speak her mind.
Linton and Haun are equally terrific, the former giving us a man who any kid growing up in America would be lucky to call Dad, the latter doing bang-up work as Sara’s smart, educated, possibly alcoholic sister.
Add to the above performances Ryan’s gift for sharp, believable dialog and an hour’s worth of you-can-hear-a-pin-drop dramatic tension and you’ve got the potential for another must-see hit, particularly given the all-around Grade A production design with which A Good Family has been blessed.
More work is needed, however, to make Ryan’s latest the satisfying whole that was One In A Chamber, though since it’s impossible to discuss its shortcomings without giving away spoilers, read on with caution (or simply skip the next three paragraphs if you plan on seeing A Good Family for its many plusses).
Audience members may find it frustrating that because of Kerry’s legal advice, we never get to hear Jack’s account of the evening’s events. In addition, anyone expecting a resolution to Jack’s troubles will likely be disappointed by the frustratingly inconclusive note on which Ryan has chosen to conclude her play. A third detriment to A Good Family’s audience-draw factor is its too brief running time, not quite enough to plan an evening of theater around.
An additional quarter hour with the Suttons would, without altering the play’s outcome, both rectify the running-time problem and make the ambiguous note on which it ends less of a negative, giving us time to get to know the family as a whole (and Jack in particular) and allowing Ryan to dig further into grayer areas surrounding the hot-button issue of campus rape.
No complaints can be lodged against scenic designer Michael Fitzgerald’s remarkable transformation of Hollywood’s intimate Lounge Theatre into a Missouri family room all spruced up for Christmas and lit to perfection by Jenn Burkhardt. Costumes are just right for each character, with special snaps for Sara and Matthew’s once-a-year holiday garb, while the holiday tunes emanating from Sara’s iPad set an initially holly-jolly Christmas mood, then turn deliberately jarring (“It’s The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year”) following Jack’s phone call.
A Good Family is presented by Timur Bekmanbetov and produced by Ryan and Nila Sawyer in association with Racquel Lehrman and Victoria Watson at Theater Planners. Bree Cardenas is stage manager. Lisa Bierman is assistant director.
There is much to recommend in A Good Family, and even more to talk about post curtain calls. If only there were just a bit more of it.
Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard. Hollywood.
November 28, 2105
Photos: Emilie Svensson