A Funny Family | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

A Funny Family 

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CLOSE OF PLAY

Famous Door Theatre

at Victory Gardens Studio Theater

Simon Gray's biting black comedy Close of Play has a very wordy script, filled with confessional outpourings and bizarre, elegantly articulated anecdotes. But the dominant image of the work is silence--silence so impenetrable, so final, as to constitute a void of understanding. That silence is expressed in a vivid, horrifying, and funny reminiscence about a man who hung himself from a tree and no one knew why because though he pinned a farewell note to his jacket, it rained, obliterating the note. The silence is expressed in the haunting memory of a beloved older brother whose sudden death still haunts his surviving family. And, most centrally--almost literally center stage, in fact--the silence is expressed in the presence of an old man, seated in his comfortable chair, impeccably dressed for dinner, and saying not a word in response to the volumes of words that are addressed to him.

The old man is the "Daddy" of a wealthy suburban English family. As he sits, stone silent, his offspring and their mates serially regale him with the stories of their lives--their anger, their resentments, their sorrows, their failures. Henry, the elder son, is a doctor whose patients die from his misdiagnoses, a bouncy, athletic type who's sexually overworked by his oh-so-fertile wife and by a patient with whom he has slipped into an inescapable romance. Ben, the baby of the family, is a twitchy alcoholic consumed by unresolved sibling rivalry, a writer at the BBC, and a self-described "moral no-hoper." (The choice of professions for these brothers is no accident; the public health and the public culture are in big trouble, Gray is saying of his country.)

And while the men drift in directionless despair, the women get on with their lives. Henry's wife, Marianne, is a baby machine, chatting with a slightly hysterical cheeriness as she totes her portable potty; Ben's spouse, Margaret, is a rising young writer eager to be rid of her infantile hubby so she can concentrate on her craft. She's already got rid of two fetuses for the same reason. Meanwhile, silent Daddy is attended to by Daisy, the absent-minded, headache-ridden spinster aunt who's got quite a surprise up her sleeve.

Hanging over this hopeless household, with its ever more shocking confessions of alcohol abuse, envy, adultery, homosexuality, sadomasochism, Don Juanism, and abortion, is the memory of Dick, the dead oldest brother--the best and the brightest, the only son Daddy really loved, the scholar-athlete who excelled at all things until he was killed in a motorbike accident. Maybe. Dick's gone, but his widow Jenny's with the family, trying as hard as she can to keep her adolescent son from slipping into the same web of defeat as the rest of her late husband's family. It won't be easy; the kid, Mathew, is already displaying signs of his father's tendencies toward sexual ambivalence and thievery.

What's amazing about Close of Play, given the setup I've just described, is that it is genuinely funny. The laughter comes not because Gray betrays the seriousness of his characters' situations, but because he respects it. Some things are so bad you simply have to laugh; the more real the characters, the funnier they are--and the more painful the humor is.

Marc Grapey's staging of this 1979 script--written in a slightly more absurdist vein than Gray's more recent The Common Pursuit, seen lately at Steppenwolf--does quite well by Gray's writing. The setting, the drawing room of Daddy's estate, is thoroughly believable (thanks to Scott Jones's detailed set and lighting design and to the success of special effects such as a rainstorm seen through french windows), and the ritual unloading of private griefs onto the passive paterfamilias is handled with mounting but restrained force rather than overstated stridency. I gather from others who've seen this production that the actors' control over their emotional dynamics has improved since opening; I saw the show a week into its run and found it superb all down the line.

John Allen and Dan Rivkin are splendid as Ben and Henry, the two brothers locked in their own intermingling cycles of failure, and so are Jessica Grossman and Kathleen O'Grady as Margaret and Marianne and Rose Spinelli as the sister-in-law-in-mourning Jenny. Eighth-grader Murphy Monroe is young Mathew. At the other end of the age spectrum, as Daisy and Daddy, are Lucina Paquet and Glendon Gabbard, two of the leading local specialists in eccentric oldsters. Gabbard is especially riveting with his subtly shifting facial expressions in a role originally (and controversially) played by the ailing Sir Michael Redgrave.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Gina Uhlmann.

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