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Theatre in Review: The Way West (Labyrinth Theater/Bank Street Theater)

Nadia Bowers, Deirdre O'Connell, Anna O'Donoghue. Photo: Monique Carboni

Those of us who think of Deirdre O'Connell as a hardy pioneer woman of the downtown theatre scene will not be surprised in the least to see her in Mona Mansour's new play, regaling her adult daughters with stories that apotheosize the people of the American West. This is, after all, an actress who has never shrunk from a challenge; who, over the years, has created a superbly etched gallery of eccentrics, matriarchs, and truth-tellers; who imbues each character she plays with a kind of amused astonishment at the world and its wicked ways. When she says, "We western people are special, okay?....Put it this way: We look death square in the eye -- in the eye -- and say, 'Not now, not today, ya hear me?'," you listen and you believe. The character, known only as Mom, is another indelible O'Connell creation; it's easy to see how Mom -- infuriating, polarizing, and recklessly unconcerned about the future -- remains the center of her little world, even as it is going to hell in a handbasket.

Set in 2008, just after the financial crash, The Way West is designed to show how the American ethos of flinty self-reliance, embodied by the pioneers, has reached its final, decadent phase. The aforementioned speech is a prelude to a story that Mom, a resident of Stockton, California, tells about a woman who pulls herself out of a car crash, and, gravely injured, fends off a hungry coyote with the smashed remains of her leg. The story is extravagant, riveting, and not really credible; it also provides a clue to the obliviousness that has brought Mom to her current state of crisis. Having lost her job in a tire shop, she has quickly burned through her savings, as well as a trust left her by her father. Her daughter, Manda, has flown in from Chicago to help sort things out, and what she finds raises an array of red flags: Among other things, Mom has made an investment, in the low five figures, in a dubious weight-reduction business opened by her friend Tress. Asked to produce her financial records, she brings out a kitchen tin, roots around in it, and pulls out an old photo. "Look at that; it's me on a horse," she says, delighted.

The worries continue to pile up: Mom has recently been involved in a series of traffic accidents, most recently crashing into Meesh's car in the driveway. When Manda wonders if Mom should be drinking wine with her medication -- she suffers from a condition she refuses to discuss -- she replies, "Oh Jesus. That's just a recommendation." (She is only 61, but her health is clearly declining.) Further complicating the situation is the presence of Meesh, another daughter, who is equally insolvent and prone to hare-brained moneymaking schemes. Manda is not thrilled to learn that her sister has opened a charge account in Mom's name at Elizabeth Arden and used it to obtain several thousand dollars' worth of jars of "refined moisture complex" that she intends to resell on eBay for a profit. "This is what I get for being the caregiver," grumbles Meesh, who cares for nobody, when challenged by Manda.

With relatives like this, who needs enemies? In its early scenes, The Way West appears to be another dysfunctional family comedy, featuring Manda, who has a steady job raising funds for a university, trying to corral Mom and Meesh into managing something like adult behavior. Instead, she proves to be her mother's daughter, running up credit card debt of her own, fleeing responsibility when caught making a terrible error on the job, and flirting shamelessly with her high school boyfriend, now a lawyer, whom she engages to shepherd Mom through bankruptcy court; the fact that he has a fiancée apparently makes him all the more attractive.

The rest of The Way West chronicles the family's downward slide, with Mom extolling the virtues of independence and endurance even as she becomes increasingly unable to care for herself. Thanks to some tartly amusing dialogue and O'Connell's sterling work, many audience members with difficult parents will experience their fair share of shock-of-recognition laughs. Frustrated that Mom dismisses any questions about her finances as "crass," Manda reminds her that she was summoned home to help out. "Yes! But not in an oppressive way," Mom replies. Or, as Manda notes, "Mom knows the exact number of people who died on a wagon train, but not how much money she has in her checking account." "Manda, those are my priorities," Mom replies.

Despite such amusing moments, The Way West suffers from a certain monotonousness -- things just keep getting worse -- that undermines one's interest in the characters. Watching them repeatedly screw up, it becomes increasingly difficult to care what happens to them; it's particularly irritating to see Manda, with whom we initially identify, make one bad choice after another. (The script gives little indication of the family's history: Has Mom always been this way or has her behavior intensified? There's also nothing on Mom's marital history.) Mansour's point of view on all this fiddling while Rome burns isn't sufficiently sharp or funny, and her attempts to link the goings-on to something larger in the American character -- through a series of monologues by Mom invoking the code of the West -- are tedious and heavy-handed.

Mimi O'Donnell's direction can't bring urgency or a rooting interest to this situation but her cast is fairly solid. As Manda, a character who becomes increasingly off-putting as the play progresses, the striking Nadia Bowers makes plausible the character's transition from voice of reason to train wreck. As Meesh, Anna O'Donoghue initially comes across as grating and whiny, but she does allow glimpses of a more troubled person behind the bad behavior. As Tress, whose highly suspicious weight-loss scheme depends on reselling drops of something called "essential water," the one-named actress Portia finds exactly the right deadpan comic style. Alfredo Narciso is solid as Manda's old flame, a role that doesn't really go anywhere. Curran Connor is amusing both as Meesh's slacker pal and as a pizza delivery guy who, after a bruising encounter with this out-of-cash clan, is comforted by the knowledge that at least he is solvent.

David Meyer's ranch-house interior deliberately has a slightly non-realistic air, but is also crammed with furnishings that reveal volumes about Mom; the set also splits open to provide an expansive view of the desert previously only seen through the windows. Bradley King's lighting creates a series of time-of-day looks that includes some intensely colorful sunsets and sunrises. Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes and Ryan Rumery's sound are both fine.

As The Way West follows a predictable path to ruin - by the end, the family is living in a state that might reasonably be called feral -- Mansour's editorializing fails to take it to state-of-the-nation play status. Maybe Mom and the others do embody some strain of American pathology - or maybe they are just losers. -- David Barbour

(17 March 2016)

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