Neil Simon meets Euripides in Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’s Big Sky, a Geffen Playhouse World Premiere that ends up far more than simply the one-liner-packed comedic romp its first act would lead you to expect.
The laughs do fly fast and furious as Act One introduces us to 40something couple Jack and Jen (Jon Tenney and Jennifer Westfeldt), their seventeen-year-old daughter Tessa (Emily Robinson), and the family’s longtime gay best friend/“uncle” Jonathan (Arnie Burton) as the foursome get treated to a swanky stay in an Aspen Ritz Carlton condo by the man Jack hopes soon to be calling boss.
It’s been a tough five years for Jack since the country’s financial crisis cost him his high-power, high-bucks job, one that afforded him, Jen, and Tessa a high-end life that is no more.
Still, if the boxful of $200-a-bottle wine discovered upon arrival is any indication of what lies ahead, then things would indeed seem to be looking up for Jack and Jen, provided that the former can ace whatever “tests” his potential boss may have in store for him this weekend.
Yes, the long-marrieds do seem to be on different sexual wavelengths these days (she’s not all that crazy about the way he manhandles her left breast in lieu of foreplay), Jen would appear to be getting phone calls from someone probably not the female friend she claims (sometimes a hospice volunteer job can yield unexpected benefits), Tessa may secretly be dating a man her parents would not be overjoyed to hear about (their high-rise apartment building porter Catoni, half Native-American, a quarter Dominican, a quarter Haitian, and packing a penis that would do his ancestors proud), and Jonathan is clearly desperate for the check Jack has promised him (the market for $300 pillows promises a bright future ahead for the currently close-to-destitute widower).
Gersten-Vassilaros’s script is so riotously funny pre-intermission, it would do the writer of Rumors and Plaza Suite proud.
Still, as any Greek tragedian can tell you, disaster is never more than a heartbeat (or casually pilfered pot stash) away, which is as much as you’ll pry from this reviewer’s lips about Big Sky’s unexpected second act.
Film/TV stars Tenney and Westfeldt prove themselves gifted stage dramedians, combining masterful comic timing with edge, and with a pathos that gets us to caring about a couple we may initially have dismissed as privileged and self-centered and unworthy of our sympathy.
Burton steals every scene he’s in as GBF Jonathan, going beyond the sassy gay stereotype to give us a man who’s known his fair share of life’s bumps, and the vivacious, scrappy Robinson too adds new colors to the proverbial rebellious teen.
Big Sky looks sensational on scenic designer Derek McLane’s mile-high luxury condo set, Jaymi Lee Smith’s lighting design providing dramatic visual surprises.
Denitsa Bliznakova’s costumes are precisely what you’d expect Jack and Jen and Tessa and Jonathan to sport on a weekend jaunt at Aspen. (Bonus points for Jonathan’s cross-country ski suit and boots and for Tessa’s slutty-teen wear.) Sound designer Jon Gottlieb provides a striking mix of mood-settting music and Aspen effects.
Steve Rankin adds some believable fight choreography. Josiah Davis is assistant director. Elizabeth A. Brohm is production stage manager and Maggie Swing is assistant stage manager. Amy Levinson is dramaturg.
Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa, CSA. Debbon Ayer, Christopher Devlin, Corke Loupe, and Delaney Rowe are understudies.
Back in 2008, I wrote the following about Gersten-Vassilaros’s My Thing Of Love: “Much of the pleasure of watching [this] quirkily wonderful and unpredictable comedy (or is it a drama?) is in not knowing what’s going to happen.”
The same holds true in Big Sky, so remember to keep those lips sealed when telling friends not to miss this gut-punching humdinger of a play.
Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.
June 15, 2016
Photos: Darrett Sanders