Messed-up families have been a playwright's staple since Sophocles' Oedipus went off the track with Dad and Mom. Family dysfunction a dramatic subject? "What else is there?" asked Sam Shepard, himself a noted practitioner of the genre.
Tom Dudzick's 1990 play "Greetings" is a Christmas play and a kitchen sink play. Young, upwardly mobile New York City adman Andy Gorski goes home at Christmas to visit his lower middle-class family in Pittsburgh and introduce Randi, his fiancée, who is a struggling actor and a nonobservant Jew, to his conservative Roman Catholic parents.
What could possibly go wrong?
What: "Greetings," by Tom Dudzick
When: 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Dec. 29
Where: Ashland Community Center, 59 Winburn Way, Ashland
Tickets: $15 at Paddington Station in Ashland, Grocery Outlet in Medford, online at www.ashlandcontemporarytheatre.org or by calling 541-646-2971.
The laws of dramaturgy require that Murphy's Law comes into play. And as it does, Ashland Contemporary Theatre's lively new production of the play generates laughs of recognition: Yes, that's just how some families — maybe even people in our own families — act at those always-fraught holiday get-togethers.
"So — you don't have Christmas?" Andy's father, Phil Gorski (David Mannix), an unhappy, hard-drinking, ex-baseball player asks Randi (Mig Windows).
"Dad," says Andy (Levi Anderson), steering the conversation away from the Jewish thing, "Randi's an atheist." "OH-oh-oh-ooohhhhh," Phil says, taking it in.
Dudzick is spot-on in catching the teeth-grinding edginess that attends so many of these family holidays. The laughs are frequent, generous and a tad nervous — a tribute to Evalyn Hansen's affectionate direction and uniformly high-caliber acting.
The wheels were threatening to come off the Gorskis' holiday even before Andy and Randi arrived, what with Phil's ranting about the cranky electricity in the family home and the neighbors' lack of Christmas spirit (only four houses with lighting displays!) and occasionally slipping into the basement for a quick beer. Mannix is wonderful as the grouchy patriarch whose defensiveness, sarcasm and impacted rage are wrecking the holiday for everybody.
Phil's wife, good-hearted, pragmatic Emily (Diane Nichols), alternates between humoring Phil and trying to blunt his sharper edges. And trying to convince him that the couple's younger son, the developmentally disabled Mickey (Peter Wickliffe), who does not speak beyond occasionally blurting, "Oh boy!" recently spoke to her.
A gifted minor-league pitcher as a young man, Phil turned down a contract with the big-league Pittsburgh Pirates to stay home and take care of his family when Mickey turned out to be, as Phil says, "retarded." Now he chews his own bitterness.
Anderson's Andy just hopes to keep the peace and head off Phil's increasingly aggressive hectoring of Randi on religious grounds. Windows' Randi can take care of herself, thank you, intelligently and powerfully, but she harbors hidden pain of her own.
It is ironic that the only happy character seems to be Mickey, in a vivid performance by Wickliffe. Mickey, in fact, turns out to be the thematic center of the play, and flat-out takes it over with a bombshell at the end of the first act.
When this occurs the play is transformed from one kind of drama into another, and that's not a good thing. There is an unwritten contract between the playwright and the audience that a play is in more or less the same universe all the way through. No fair having Martians appear in a UFO to solve the murder in the end. No fair turning a tragedy into a musical comedy (surprise!) in the second act (unless you're Shakespeare, which you're not).
(SPOILER WARNING) This is what Dudzick does. After spending the first act working within the conventions of what's generally understood to be theatrical realism, we learn that Mickey's body has been taken over, with his approval, by an advanced being or spiritual entity. With a mind-twisting jerk, the play transforms abruptly into a body-swap story in which one being occupies the body of another, a la "Freaky Friday," "The Change-Up," "The Hot Chick," "Prelude to a Kiss," et al.
Mickey's body's occupier, Lucius (from the Latin for light?), will spend most of the second act declaiming on karma, reincarnation, soul journeys and blah, blah, blah. Lucius is an example of a kind of character often created by student playwrights. His function is to tell the other characters (and most importantly, poor, dumb us) The Meaning Of It All before the final curtain.
When Dudzick turns away from the specific, uniquely human characters he's created to lay on us from on high The Meaning Of It All, he abandons — chickens out on — a deeply personal journey into something frightening and real and unique in order to give us a schoolmarmish lecture on boilerplate metaphysics.
You have the right to write a body-swap play if you want. But you also have a responsibility to let us know what universe we're in, to play square and not trick us.
Whether we like Lucius' philosophy or not doesn't matter. The air simply goes out of the play, and those quirky characters lose their life force and become mere mechanical pawns. And that's a shame. I cared about them.
Bill Varble is a freelance writer living in Medford. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.