Life’s many obstacles prove no match for the ties that bind—promises, responsibilities, guilt, laughter, and above all love—in Garry Michael Kluger’s heart-and-humor-filled A Thorn In The Family Paw, a Theatre West World Premiere that already feels like a contemporary classic.
Charting the course of a marriage from the 1940s to the ‘90s, bumps and curves and potholes along the way, Kluger’s dramedy introduces us to Queens-residing Eddie and Susie Goodman (Nick McDow and Katie Adler) as they celebrate their third anniversary, their first together since Nick went off to war only months after their wedding.
Life looks good for the Goodmans in 1945. They may have spent a grand total of four months together so far, but if ever a couple seems likely to make it, the perfectly matched Eddie and Susie would appear to be that couple.
Flash forward to the tumults of 1969—a freshly inaugurated President Nixon pursuing the Vietnam War at full tilt, the Stonewall riots ushering in a new era for gay Americans, women carrying on their own battle for equal rights—and Ed and Susan (George Tovar and Julia Silverman) find themselves facing a radically new world as they celebrate their 25th anniversary alongside their now adult children Samantha (Heather Alyse Becker) and Jamie (Ian Lerch).
With Sam already testing her father’s tolerance for change with an announcement no ‘40s or ‘50s daughter would dare make, Berkeley student Jamie has his own humdinger of a surprise to spring on dear old dad, one that will test paternal love as it has never been tested before.
Act Two then flashes ahead to the dawn of the Reagan ‘80s and later to the start of the Clinton years, and if America is no longer the same as it was during the Roosevelt-Truman ‘40s and Eisenhower ‘50s, neither are Ed and Susan as individuals, as a couple, or as parents of children living lives those 1945 newlyweds could scarcely have imagined.
Kluger’s characters have such a ring of truth, you’d swear A Thorn In The Family Paw must be autobiographical, though it’s not. A married couple bickers and banters, parents judge and forgive, and siblings clash and offer mutual support, bound together over half-a-century by laughter and by love.
Arden Teresa Lewis’s incisive direction brings out the best in Kluger’s script as does a pitch-perfect Theatre West cast.
Cheeky, charming, and charismatic, McDow’s Eddie is such a sexy standout that it’s a shame we only get to see him in 1945, though a terrific Tovar makes us believe (despite quite a post-20s growth spurt) that we’re witnessing an older—though not always wiser—incarnation of the man McDow has already gotten us to love.
A radiant Adler and an ever stellar Silverman are perfectly in sync as well, the latter displaying the same prickly, affectionate chemistry opposite Tovar that we’ve already witnessed in their younger selves, Adler demonstrating versatility (and a distinct family resemblance) as her very own granddaughter circa 1992.
Audience members with siblings will find much to recognize in Sam and Jamie. Dynamic native New Yorker Becker gives the older sib plenty of smarts and sass and sisterly affection. As for Jamie, Sam’s younger bro is brought to unforgettable life by an absolutely stunning Lerch, digging deep into a young man’s pain in a performance that recalls a young Edward Norton.
Jeff G. Rack has designed an impeccably detailed Goodman family living room altered ever so slightly as the decades pass, sound designer Kluger inserting hit tunes from each era to prod our sense memories. Lewis’s costumes fit each character and year to a T. Yancey Dunham lights costumes and set with professional expertise and flair.
A Thorn In The Family Paw is produced by Benjamin Scuglia and features Lewis’s and Kluger’s vocal talents and Lisa Fabio’s wigs. David Mingrino is production stage manager and Olivia Bates, Katie Davis, and Dillon Mount are assistant stage managers.
I expected to enjoy A Thorn In The Family Paw, if only for its multi-decade framework. I did not expect to fall in love with it, but fall in love I did, and unless I’m mistaken, theaters across the country will as well. Garry Michael Kluger’s latest is a keeper.
Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Los Angeles.
June 12, 2106
Photos: Garry Michael Kluger