Unfit for Inhabitation

Written by Mark Peikert on . Posted in Posts, Theater.

Remember when actors just wanted to direct? Those were the
days. Now, it seems, actors like to fancy themselves wordsmiths with stories to
tell worthy of expensive Off-Broadway productions. Zach Braff made a convincing
case for himself as a playwright this past summer with All New People; Zoe Kazan, a New York City stage favorite, is less
persuasive with We Live Here, given a
sumptuous production by Manhattan Theatre Club.

We Live Here,
despite its two-hour running time, is a flimsy excuse for a play. Set over the
course of one day (and a very long night), Kazan’s story is about family.
Specifically, an upper-middle class white family with pretentions of
scholarship and musical talent. Write what you know has never resulted in so
painful an offering.

Back from Juilliard for her sister’s wedding, Dinah (Betty
Gilpin, unconvincing as a 19-year-old) brings in tow her new boyfriend David
(Oscar Isaac), who teaches at the school. Except she knows David from before
they met at school, back when he was her now-deceased older sister’s high
school boyfriend. This does not seem to strike Dinah—or Kazan—as creepy.
Instead, it’s the catalyst for a melodramatic climax that finds Dinah’s
soon-to-be-married sister Althea (Jessica Collins) screaming confessions into
the night.

There’s a whole lot of screaming in We Live Here, which looks and feels like a Nancy Meyers movie, if
Meyers took a sledgehammer to her carefully constructed stories and blithely
wealthy characters. Althea screams at her fiancé Sandy (Jeremy Shamos, the one
saving grace of the play) and her mother (Amy Irving, already screamed hoarse
prior to opening night), while engaging in an icy détente with David. Should
you not realize why she’s so unhappy to see David, then my apologies that you
have never before read a book, watched a movie or seen a play. If, like most of
the audience, you spotted the various second-act reveals in the play’s opening
moments, settle in for a long, dull evening.

Kazan reveals no previously unseen talent for writing
characters, crafting dialogue or even conjuring up a compelling plot. The
highest stakes in We Live Here are
the pending nuptials of Sandy and Althea, two characters about whom all we know
is that he’s a sweetheart and she has a tendency to turn shrill. We are,
however, treated to the unfortunate sight of Collins crawling on the floor of
her parents’ living room, pretending to be a “naughty kitty” that Sandy will
adopt and take home.

Director Sam Gold, who has given audiences some of the most
beautifully nuanced shows of the past few seasons, is capable of much more than
his work here would indicate. His direction is jittery, as if he was afraid
that stillness would prompt recognition on the part of the audience that what
they’re watching is as inorganic as a play about a suburban Massachusetts
family who have conversations about hamartia (“fatal flaw,” for those who don’t
know their Latin) can be. Oh, and Althea’s dead twin was named Andromeda. Don’t
worry if you don’t get the reference; Kazan drives the point home with the
subtlety of a hammer to the skull.

Even less subtle is her abrupt ending, which resolves
nothing and aims for complexity but merely succeeds at trendy ambiguity.
Moments after the family has aired their dirty laundry (more screaming), Althea
and Dinah tearily embrace…and curtain. The suddenness of the ending would be
more frustrating if we hadn’t been ready to leave these whiny, self-involved
characters long ago. They may live there, but thankfully we’re only visiting.

We Live Here

Through Nov. 6, NY City Center, 131 W. 55th St. (betw. 6th
& 7th Aves.), www.manhattantheatreclub.com; $80.