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Theatre in Review: Winners (Ensemble Studio Theatre)

Grant Shaud, Scott Sowers. Photo: Gerry Goodstein

Was it only last week that Kate Benson gave us a fresh twist on the dysfunctional family comedy in A Beautiful Day in November on the Banks of the Greatest of the Great Lakes? It's back to business as usual this week with Winners, a standard-issue package of family wackiness and tears, distinguished only by the awkwardness with which the author, Maggie Bofill, handles her material. Since the early days of Beth Henley (at least), playwrights have been assembling households full of zanily depressed characters, letting them run amok for an act or two until the inevitable big-hug finale. I'm not saying this formula can't work, but it certainly needs more invention than Bofill has brought to it.

The economic crisis unleashes most of the angst in Winners. (Someone should tell Bofill's characters about the new jobs numbers.) Brian, the head of the house, was a hard-charging businessman (industry unnamed) until he was sacked; now he shuffles around in a bathrobe, making meals nobody wants to eat. Taking up the slack, Brian's wife, Mabel, is now the breadwinner, morphing into a monster of ambition who is sleeping with the boss. (This dreary role-reversal -- the man can't nurture, a career turns the woman into a bitch -- is an early warning sign of clich├ęs to come.) Tommy, the elder of the two children, just got fired from his job in the stockroom at The Gap, ostensibly for showing up for work stoned. ("Now you're not the only unemployed loser in the house," he informs Brian.) Gabby, the tweener daughter, is a silent, vaguely sinister presence who documents her parents' selfish actions with a camera; she is also planning a Christmas play that focuses exclusively on King Herod and the slaughter of the innocents.

All of this is laid out in an opening scene that also establishes screaming as the main method of discourse among Brian, Mabel, and Tommy. The director, Pamela Berlin, has seemingly exercised no oversight of the appalling decibel levels; I predict a mass outbreak of vocal distress among the cast within a week or two. (At the performance I attended, you could practically hear Grant Shaud's vocal chords shredding each time Brian launched into another aria of rage.)

In the midst of all this carrying-on, we are introduced to the family's pets -- Buck, the dog, and Marie Antoinette, the cat -- who are, yes, played by adult actors. Marie Antoinette amuses herself by urinating on Mabel's pillow and getting stuck in windows. (The staging of the latter bit does make for a striking image right out of a George Price cartoon.) Buck is awarded his own monologues, which have nothing to do with the plot; he also passes his time eating garbage. This bad habit cues a major Act II development, which hinges on the question of buying a lidded trash can for the kitchen. Naturally, it precipitates another shouting match.

Bofill has a few good ideas: Brian visits The Gap to inquire about Tommy's firing, and ends up with Tommy's job, which has a further chilling effect on father-son relations. It also sets up the rather contrived plot. Bill, Brian's boss and old friend, has been having his way with the female employees, including Tommy's girlfriend; Bill's perky, clueless wife, Lilly, holds the purse strings of a foundation that could fund Gabby's return to the private girls' school that Brian and Mabel can no longer afford. (In an example of the wit on offer, Bill refers to the school as "the virgin vault.") All of this comes out at a dinner party that goes wildly wrong, yet somehow heals the family's problems just in time for the final curtain.

Berlin's direction can't harness the script's out-of-control tonal shifts, but she could have done something to tone down the grossly overstated performances. Shaud and Florencia Lozano (Mabel) are the biggest offenders, but Scott Sowers (Bill) and Polly Lee (Lilly) do their share of mugging. Curran Connor (Buck) underplays as nicely as Stephanie Hsu (Marie Antoinette) overdoes it, but this cutesy anthropomorphic animal act is jarringly out of sync with the sour quality of the scenes of domestic strife. On the other hand, David Gelles is refreshingly natural as Tommy (when not screaming at his parents) and Arielle Goldman brings a powerful sense of purpose and an aching vulnerability to the role of Gabby. She also delivers Gabby's King Herod performance piece -- Bofill's cleverest invention -- with a crazy conviction that wins us over. The two young performers are the best argument for seeing Winners.

Faced with a script that never stays in any location for more than a few pages, Jason Simms has come up with a set that changes over remarkably quickly; still, an enormous amount of time is spent on scene shifting. (One clever touch is a video screen in the upstage wall that can become a window, the front of a microwave, or a retail display.) Sydney Maresca's costumes are often perceptive --especially the ghastly sequined sweaters that Lilly prefers -- but I wish she hadn't dressed Mabel quite so much like a high-class call girl. Seth Reiser's lighting is perfectly fine. M. Florian Staab's sound design takes in a battery of effects -- slamming doors, a television show, an arriving car -- with reinforcement for the ironically upbeat incidental music.

Playwrights who are drawn to this strip-mined vein of material do so at their own risk. It's no easy job creating characters with fresh comic quirks while simultaneously anchoring them in some kind of emotional reality. Winners plays like the first four episodes of a sitcom that is never going to get picked up by the network. Depicting your characters as shrill, shrieking cartoons is the not the way to win an audience's attention.--David Barbour

(23 January 2015)

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