Theater review: "A Night with the Family" mines foibles for humor
Stage review • Uneven production buoyed by fine performances.
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At one point in the first act of Matthew Ivan Bennett's madcap comedy "A Night with the Family," daughter Bree is running to the bathroom to throw up, mom Diane is passionately kissing her sexy French-Canadian boyfriend Antoine, and son Donny is having a panic attack brought on by a misunderstanding with his new wife, while dad Donald whips up undrinkable herbal smoothies in the kitchen. It's just a typical Christmas Eve in the life of a far-from-typical family in Salt Lake City.

Pygmalion Productions is giving the play its regional premiere in an energy-filled, often-chaotic production that sometimes works and other times doesn't. What "A Night with the Family" has going for it is some clever writing and an assemblage of truly unique characters portrayed by actors who understand their quirks. When it falters, it's because Bennett doesn't always know what to do with them.

This family gives "dysfunctional" a new meaning, yet their behavior is grounded in familiar patterns. Packrat Donald (Andrew Maizner) is obsessed with New Age philosophy and has raised his son to see a world filled with warriors, orphans, and caretakers. In Donny's absence, Donald has turned his son's bedroom into a sweat lodge. Diane (Teresa Sanderson) is a force of nature whose mothering is more like smothering. She announces, "A door cannot stop a mother's love" as she barges into the house and points out the dirt on Bree's sweater as she hugs her. She and Donald split up 17 years earlier, and Donny remembers, "You were here every Friday with a new boyfriend."

Understandably both children have tried to incorporate order and control into their lives in different ways. Donny (Jay Perry), the obvious favorite, is hopelessly neurotic; his current meltdown is due to his wife wanting to change the terms of the "commitment agreement" he made her sign when they married. Bree (Elise Groves) has become a Mormon and has four young children, but she is getting frustrated with her self-assigned role of peacemaker and the person who cleans up after everyone else.

Antoine (Jesse Peery) is the least-defined character. A flamboyant modern dancer, he seems merely intent on avoiding drowning in the tidal waves launched by various family members. He does offer some sensible advice in Act II.

"A Night with the Family" has very funny moments flavored with witty one-liners, but there is a lot of yelling in Act I that bludgeons the comedy and obscures lines. Act II is calmer, and we get a chance to know the characters better.

The performances are all very good. The actors do an enviable job of melding their individual character eccentricities into the ensemble feel of a family. Co-directors Lane Richins and Laurie Mecham keep the pace moving at a fast clip, although things get frenetic and out of control at times. Kit Anderton's cluttered set provides the perfect milieu for the action and reinforces Bree's observation: "Our exterior spaces reflect our interior ones." Teresa Sanderson's costumes emblem the personalities of their wearers; especially fun are the matching track suits for Diane and Antoine.

"A Night with the Family" is Bennett's first attempt at comedy, and it is understandably uneven. Yet his keen eye for character and clever way with words create both humor and insight about the way families behave. —

'Night with the Family'

P Lively performances and outrageous humor energize Pygmalion's uneven production.

When • reviewed April 25, continues through May 11. Show times: Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. with a Saturday matinee May 11 at 2 p.m.

Where • Rose Wagner Theatre, at Rose Wagner Center for the Arts, 158 Broadway, Salt Lake City.

Tickets • $20. Recommended for mature audiences 17 years of age and older. Call 801-355-ARTS or visit www.arttix.org for more information.

Running time • 2 hours (including an intermission)