Dysfunctional families have been the animating force behind theater forever, dating back to the time a caveman first lost patience with his father's idiotic obsession for collecting mastodon tusks. But when young contemporary playwrights venture into the Land of Weird Relatives, they usually load on the stereotypes -- Dominating Depressive Dad, Haranguing Harpy Mom -- and assume that they're being insightful. They haven't learned that what frequently drives the apparently bizarre behavior of our families is a deep but maddeningly inarticulate love. That's what makes these relationships, when they fail, hurt even more.
Playwright Adam Rapp makes no such mistake in Stone Cold Dead Serious, being given a robustly entertaining production by TITLEWave Theatre and Cleveland Public Theatre. Rapp's family has many of the requisite tics and twitches, but there's a tender concern at the core of all their actions that gives this play a special resonance. Unfortunately, Rapp is often as much a victim of his imaginative flourishes as he is their master.
The play opens on stocky and bald Cliff Ledbetter, semi-comatose on a sofa in front of the TV, farting blue clouds. We soon learn that he's under medication for a debilitating back injury, and the pills are fogging his mind. His 16-year-old son, Wynne, offers the occasional helping hand, showing Dad to the bathroom when the old man poops in his pants, while keeping him in line with a taser Wynne bought from a friend.
Soon, his older sister, Shaylee, a freelance hooker, arrives and starts searching for household items she can hock to support her druggie lifestyle. A casually unapologetic racist, she comments that she "can't stand niggers" and that a recent john named Carlos "looked like Art Garfunkel -- if Garfunkel was a spic." Once the mother, Linda, arrives home from her waitress job, carrying a large tray of cold lasagna and spouting random religious ramblings, the wacko family unit is complete.
But stifle that yawn, because these aren't the usual cardboard cutouts that playwrights use for target practice. Cliff turns out to be touchingly emotional, fondly remembering how cute Shaylee was as an infant. Also, he and Linda have worked out a dependent but respectful relationship with each other, with her accommodating his compulsive ordering from QVC and him accepting her faith-based entreaties. Anchoring the play, however, is good-natured Wynne, a gifted video-game player. In fact, he's one of three people in the country who've qualified for a real-life enactment of his favorite game, the Tang Dynasty, which will take place in New York City. Wynne, his mute girlfriend, Sharice, and another internet winner are to confront three mercenaries in hand-to-hand combat. Cliff, woozily in support of his son, cheers him on: "Taser their macaroni asses!"
When Dead Serious works, during most of the first act and parts of the second, it's an exhilarating wave of jazzlike dialogue riffs woven into intriguing personalities. Part of the credit goes to playwright Rapp, who can nail a character with dazzling detail. To wit, Cliff used to be part of a band of top-flight glaziers who followed tornadoes, repairing smashed greenhouses. Rapp has so many ideas that he has difficulty managing them all, so there are unnecessary scenes (a hitchhiking/blowjob sequence with Wynne) and a rambling second act.
Under the skilled hand of director Gregory Vovos, the TITLEWave/CPT cast is exceptional, squeezing every laugh out of Rapp's inventive dialogue. Robert Ellis is simply hilarious as the gassy Cliff. His deadpan word inversions are much funnier than they have any right to be, thanks to his vacant delivery. Matching him step for step is Meg Kelly Schroeder as the earnest and hardworking Linda. Schroeder is also a hoot when she plays the Snake Lady in act two -- a stuffed serpent wrapped around her body as she attempts to hit on Wynne and Sharice. Also double-cast is Magdalyn Donnelly, who manufactures crisply contrasting personas as the foul-mouthed trollop Shaylee and the innocently sexy Sharice. In the key role of Wynne, handsome young Stephen Dale is pleasantly agreeable, but seems to lack the monomaniacal focus of a video-game geek who would shave his head and tattoo his face to prove his samurai worthiness.
Adding to some overall confusion is a strangely inappropriate set design by the usually reliable Trad A. Burns. Every scene is played in an area bordered by walls of large, modern-looking window panels. As a result, it seems that the lower-middle-class Ledbetter house, as well as the cheesy New York flophouse where Wynne and Sharice stay, are upscale buildings of some sort.
Even with these shortcomings, Dead Serious has much to offer -- especially if you're fond of absurd non sequiturs. At one point Cliff stares at the TV and comments in a disbelieving monotone on the latest QVC spiel: "They want $5,000 for Michael Jordan's rookie card. Who do they think we are, the German automotive industry?" There's a lot to love about writing like that, particularly when there's some heart beneath the buffoonery.
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