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Theatre in Review: Lemon Sky (Keen Company/Theatre Row)

Kellie Overbey, Kevin Kilner, and Keith Nobbs. Photo: Richard Termine

Are we due for a Lanford Wilson revival? The time seems ripe. Arguably the most critically acclaimed American playwright of the 1970s, his output began to dwindle at a relatively early age, his fortunes seemingly tied to the downward spiral of Circle Repertory Company, his artistic home of many years. His last new work was seen in New York in 2003. (He died, too young, at 74, earlier this year.) All the conditions seem right for a reassessment of his not-inconsiderable output.

Sadly, Lemon Sky is probably not the most fruitful place to start. Even in Jonathan Silverstein's sensitive, well-acted production, the play is best viewed as a guide to Wilson's many idiosyncrasies as a writer. The most nakedly autobiographical of his plays, Lemon Sky exists in a double time frame. The action unfolds in the late'50s, but everyone keeps stepping out of the play to provide commentary from the vantage point of 1970. The result is more like the notes for a play than a fully realized dramatic work.

The protagonist is Alan, a 17-year-old Nebraskan who arrives in San Diego, looking to attend college and to spend time with Douglas, the father he barely knows. (His parents' marriage sputtered spectacularly when Alan was just a boy, for reasons having to do with Douglas' drinking and playing around.) California, with its beaches, barbecues, and sun-splashed patios, is seen as a brave new world for Alan, a planet located light years away from the pinched, parched, chilly Midwest of his childhood. He initially takes to it all, instantly befriending Ronnie, his tolerant stepmother, and falling big-time for his little stepbrothers. He even gets along with Carol and Penny, the troubled teens whom Douglas and Ronnie have taken in as foster children.

Of course, there are plenty of shadows among the sunshine, and, as Alan keeps reminding us, beware, there's a big scene on the way. But despite plenty of intimations - among them Carol's pill addiction, Douglas' weird hobby of taking cheesecake photos and his overly proprietary interest in Alan's sex life, and Ronnie's propensity for downplaying each and every crisis - Wilson takes his sweet time in getting to anything like drama, preferring to let his people gab away for nearly two hours about this and that. (This is a not-unusual feature of Wilson's works; on a good day, it got him compared to Chekhov.) His character portraits are rendered with a great deal of texture, but, when the constantly delayed action finally erupts into open conflict, the result is frantic and unbelievable, a burst of melodrama that comes out of nowhere.

Wilson seems to have been exploring the parameters of the standard dysfunctional family play, self-consciously toying with its conventions to see if it could yield any new insights or feelings. At the time, it must have seemed like an interesting, modernist way of addressing a potentially stale format. Seen today, however, the barrage of direct address and dearth of drama is more than a little wearying.

The climax hinges on Douglas' homophobia and some unproven allegations about Alan, for which Wilson has done little or nothing to prepare us. As presented, Alan comes across as unusually diffident, a choice that makes for a nice contrast with the ultra-macho Douglas. I assumed the character is gay, but the issue of Alan's sexual identity is broached so late that it leaves a big hole in the play. This helps explain why Alan is drawn in so much less detail than the other characters and why his relationship with Douglas is left so undramatized.

Silverstein's production, which makes more of this thin material than you might imagine, benefits from three strong lead performances. The thirty-something Keith Nobbs is fully persuasive as Alan, both as a troubled adolescent and as his sadder-but-wiser older self. Nobbs is especially touching when, seeing Douglas for the first time in years, Alan bypasses his father's proffered hand for a heartfelt hug. Kevin Kilner is a constantly unsettling presence as the swaggering, loud-talking Douglas, with his barrage of inappropriate remarks. Kellie Overbey is especially fine as Ronnie, whose cool, collected manner masks a desperate need to keep her family together at all costs.

Helpfully, the production design has plenty of California modern style. Bill Clarke's stylized set features plenty of blonde wood, a patio backed by a colorful brick wall, and Populuxe-style furniture; Jennifer Paar's costumes take note of the toreador pants and madras skirts of the period. Josh Bradford's lighting and Obidiah Eaves' sound design are both solid as well.

In the end, however, Lemon Sky seems to be more about Wilson's search for a new approach to old-fashioned material than a compelling drama in its own right. There are better Wilson plays out there; I hope someone gets to them soon.--David Barbour

(28 September 2011)

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