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Theatre in Review: You'd Better Sit Down: Takes from My Parents' Divorce (Civilians at Flea Theatre)

"I hope this doesn't send you, you know, to the psychiatrist," a man tells his son in You'd Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents' Divorce, but by then surely that boat has sailed for those who helped to create this frequently riotous exercise in family history. The Civilians are known for choosing a topic, talking to dozens of people connected to it, and building those interviews into a documentary theatre piece. Most of the time, their work is sociopolitical, investigating the role of evangelical Christianity in American life or probing the players behind Brooklyn's controversial Atlantic Yards project. This time, however, they've found their material closer to home; four members of the company have interviewed their parents about their divorces, turning their words into a funny and hair-curling series of dispatches from the marital battlefield.

The subjects include Beverly, whose scorched-earth negotiating tactics ("I may be calm now, but I don't know what's going to be happening a couple months from now") kick things off on the right embattled note. Then there's Janet, whose husband turns up in jail, accused of having forged his credentials as a therapist and leaving his family bankrupt. Mary Anne, the former nice Catholic girl, recalls her unresponsive, sometimes abusive, spouse with chilling exactitude. ("He was smart. And I was very impressed with smart back then.") We also met the exes John and Frinde, who each give us his/her side of their story. (They kept sleeping with each other until the divorce was final -- "We're socialists; we don't sweat the small stuff," says John, cheerily -- until the day John came home and found half the furniture gone.)

If these revelations aren't enough to make one's offspring a little, well, anxious, there's plenty more. Recalling the miracle of birth, Janet informs her son, "And when you came out, I was so drugged-up I thought you were a football." Mary Anne remembers her husband trying to buy a car that could only accommodate a family of four, and how she enraged him by reminding him that he had two extra children. Frinde, discussing an extramarital affair during graduate school, says, "And later on, I thought to myself, Boy, one way of avoiding writing your dissertation is to destroy your personal life." It's harder to know which is more disconcerting -- the cheerfully detached way they recall these events, or the fact that most of them don't remember discussing their divorces with their children. Or that, in many cases, they can't explain why their marriages suddenly fell apart.

And Mike Daisey, take note: Many of the most telling moments come from the verbatim text, which includes long pauses, bursts of inappropriate laughter, hesitations, and little slips. Beverly, asserting that she wanted only three things from her ex -- the house, child support, and education for the children -- pauses, and cackles, "You're right. I got alimony. Four things. Excuse me." There are misunderstandings, too-frank outbursts, and little battles over word choices, all of them illuminating the insane things people sometimes do when their lives are unraveling.

The cast, under the direction of Anne Kauffman, who also helped to assemble the script along with the actors and Janice Paran, is skillful and brave at baring their parents' eccentricities on stage. My favorite is Jennifer R. Morris, whose Beverly takes a kind of perverse pleasure in her marital struggles. (Chuckling, she recalls her husband assaulting her with the epithet "cheap Jew." "Cheap Jewess," she responds, triumphantly, driving him crazy by correcting him.) Caitlin Miller's Mary Anne is full of quiet but disturbing observations, especially when musing that perhaps love is irrelevant to a successful marriage. Robbie Collier Sublett, channeling his mother, catches her deadpan delivery when recounting the most horrifying details of her ex-husband's behavior, as well as her oddly forgiving attitude toward him. Matthew Maher nimbly switches sexes to play both John and Frinde, whose experiment in joint custody proves to be far more draining than they ever imagined. ("There were 400 comic books that had to go back and forth every week," says Frinde, staring accusingly at her son.)

Under these circumstances -- when the words are everything -- a small-scale production design is what is wanted. Mimi Lien's set places four chairs downstage of a large wall that acts as a screen for Caite Hevner's projections, which combine wallpaper-style images with identifying bits of text and questions from the unseen children. Ben Stanton's lighting, Sarah Beer costumes, and Leah Gelpe's sound design are all totally solid.

My only complaint about You'd Better Sit Down is that, for all of the mayhem recounted, it is a rather slight piece, ending without any sense of catharsis or meaningful change. At a running time of only 60 minutes, it could be profitably expanded, letting us know what happened to the characters in the next stage of their lives. Still, there's plenty here to evoke shock-of-recognition laughter in most theatregoers. If nothing else, The Civilians have provided us with a series of alarming and funny characters. See it with someone you love.--David Barbour

(18 April 2012)

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