Courtesy None Too Fragile
What if you took a revolutionary sitcom from the 1970s, say All in the Family, and tried to redo it 50 years later featuring an Archie Bunker-style dad, prejudiced but humorously malaprop-ridden, along with his bright but shallow college-age daughter? It would be a tall order, since a lot of things have changed over those decades.
But that's what the acclaimed playwright Christina Masciotti attempts in Adult, now at None Too Fragile Theatre. And while it comes to life fitfully at times, the piece becomes a victim of its own eccentricities rather than the master of them, due to predictable writing and other issues.
Dad Stanley runs a gun shop out of his home in the scruffy town of Reading, Pennsylvania. (Due to the unusually deep stage at NTF, the gun shop virtually disappears behind Sean Derry's nicely detailed living room set design, minimizing the play's intended connection to the dramatic principle known as Chekhov's gun.)
Daughter Tara decides to take a semester off and live with her long-divorced dad. It's a sitcom pitch that sells itself, and the challenge is to struggle out of that familiar box and discover new insights and raw emotions.
Unfortunately, the 100-minute production unwinds slowly and without many surprises. Stanley makes repeated attempts to bridge the generation gap and gives Tara a job straightening out his books, but his reflexive dislike for the Blacks and Hispanics who have populated his hometown keeps rearing its head. This fear of "others" leads to his barely hidden dislike for Tara's Black boyfriend, whom he has never met.
Turns out, neither will we. There are two characters who never appear: the boyfriend LaTwan ("Is he French," Stanley asks, for once knowing better) and Stanley's ex-wife, whom he talks with and rages at repeatedly on the phone. Each of those characters seem potentially more interesting than either of the two on stage, but since they never appear we are left with this pared-down family mini-drama.
To her credit, Masciotti has a finely tuned ear for the parlance of folks hovering in the lower realm of the middle class. While Stanley's butchering of the English language offers some smiles – he speaks of someone getting away "scotch-free" and of "people like that who don't have a conscious"—the gimmick gets tiresome. Sure, if you work at it, you can impute some deeper meaning to his lack of facility with language, but it seems a fool's errand. That said, Robert Ellis works this little patch like a pro, and he makes you like the amply flawed Stanley.
As Tara, Madison Ellis (Robert's real-life daughter) remains trapped inside the thin character the playwright has provided. She plays a series of emotions while not modulating or changing the texture of her delivery, especially during her whines and screeds.
Saddled with a script that needs to be performed with agility to avoid a litany of clichés, director David Vegh is only partially successful. Then, after a faux ending, the whole enterprise stumbles to an awkward conclusion as old-guy Stanley tries to learn how to use a computer (really?), while Tara packs up to move on with her life.
In a way, it's a fitting end to a play that never finds its way out of the dead-end street it creates for itself.
Through Aug. 20 at None Too Fragile Theatre, 732 W. Exchange St., Akron, nonetoofragile.com, 330-962-5547.