It’s tempting to play doctor and diagnose the world premiere play that opened at the Omaha Community Playhouse last weekend. But that urge doesn’t happen until late in the second act of A Night with the Family.
For the entire first act and well into Act Two, you’re having way too much fun to even think about what it might take to make an entertaining evening even better. Playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett wasn’t present on preview night, but he was expected over the weekend and I’d be surprised if he wasn’t pleased with what director Carl Beck did with his highly dysfunctional family.
The curtain opens on Christmas eve with Nick Zadina as Donny ringing the doorbell of his divorced father’s house only to be shaken by the fact that it no longer rings “Home on the Range” but a tune that suggests Tijuana. Underline “shaken.” Feeling betrayed by his wife’s alleged lies, almost everything shakes Donny to his hypochondriac core. He hyperventilates and suffers every sort of anxiety and panic attack known to humankind. Give the guy a break: he’s fled from his wife, lost his billfold, soaked by the rain and suffering a cough that doesn’t get much better when dad treats it with cayenne pepper.
Most amazing, Zadina manages to bring this off all night long, armed with one-liners, in the face of endless aggravation by his eccentric father (Dennis Collins), his more sensible sister (Suzanne Withem), his mother (Kim Jubenville) her French-Canadian boyfriend (Matthew Pyle). It all takes place on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning with the action focused on the family persuading Donny to call his wife and confess that he’s a jerk, mixed with long-standing warfare between the screwball father and his ex-wife.
The playwright equips his character with so many laugh lines that I immediately wanted to see the play a second time to savor the humor. But it’s far from a talky play with much of it dominated by physical antics, climaxed with an all-out brawl featuring everything from cake in the face to a barrage of toilet paper rolls, not to mention a more lethal weapon.
Pyle as mom’s boyfriend with the French accent gets the brunt of the attack after spending the evening trying to peacefully mediate the family quarrels. What’s missing in an otherwise promising play is an aftermath strong enough not to feel anti-climactic after the battle.
While all’s well that ends reasonably well, I’m not sure we’re rooting enough for the result to really care. We’ve long since learned what really bothered Donny—his wife’s betrayal was simply a desire to have children, a change of mind since their pre-marital understanding.
So we’re left after the melee with a lot of dialogue that resolves some of the family’s issues but isn’t all that heartwarming. The play was set to open next in Salt Lake City, the author’s home town, but it still needs some tinkering before moving on.
The Playhouse looked for a “clean comedy” to fill a slot on the main stage, and it found this very funny one. Scenic designer Steve Wheeldon wasn’t asked to create an idyllic home, but a cluttered living space strewn with boxes and stuffed trash bags. Costume Designer Lydia Dawson got to dress Collins in bigfoot slippers, boxer shorts and a woman ‘s short flowered robe.
No, it’s not kinky. The closest it comes to having a little fun with word play: Dad offers to toss some fruit, including banana, in a blender, and Mom asks, “How’s your banana?” Dad replies, “My banana is still firm, yellow but still firm.”
I’m not sure there’s any easy way to transition from the dysfunctional chaos to a more tender or emotionally satisfying reconciliation, but it’s certainly worth the effort for a comedy so close to being a surefire hit. As is, it gives Zadina, Collins, Pyle and Jubenville a great vehicle for their talents and lets Withem provide a sympathetic contrast.
A Night with the Family runs through May 22, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays on the Hawks Mainstage at the Omaha Community Playhouse, 6915 Cass St. Tickets are $35, $21 students. Call 402.553.0800 or visit omahaplayhouse.com.