So devoted to her delusion of suburban bliss is Carly, the toned Southern belle of “Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill,” that she’s blinded to all of the obvious cracks in the subdivision’s foundation. Anyone else would recognize that good ol’ boy Louie has lost interest in their marriage, or that her sons, binge-eating Tommy and drunken Chad, are affection-starved man-children, desperately seeking other outlets for sustenance and love.
We, of course, raised on a lifelong theatrical diet of screwed-up American families, see all too clearly where the fault lines lead in Paul Downs Colaizzo’s standard-issue comedy of maternal denial, getting its world premiere at Signature Theatre. This is a stage or TV movie parent we all know so well, the one whose kids and spouse are complicit in supporting her fantasy of an ideal life, until the disastrous day all of their energies wane, and the house comes tumbling down.
That Carly is played by Christine Lahti, the accomplished TV and film actress, provides the play with a galvanizing dramatic core and a look-see value it might not otherwise possess. Though director Michael Kahn surrounds her with other strong actors — Wayne Duvall as Louie, Christopher McFarland as Tommy and Anthony Bowden as Chad — the ultimately underwhelming “Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” cannot shed its dated aura, the sensation that the residential street it occupies runs parallel to such well-trod byways as Wisteria Lane.
The revelation-laden piece unfolds briskly and, since you’ve seen the like before, there’s that consoling appeal a drama can have, when it’s pushing familiar buttons. But make no mistake: “Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” lacks the spark of surefire originality that made “Really Really,” Colaizzo’s world premiere at Signature last year, such a pleasurably mean-spirited jolt.
In common with “Really Really,” which surveyed in searingly funny terms sexual and possibly criminal intrigue among the “Me generation” college set, “Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” assembles a gallery of characters that are essentially unlikable. Or rather, people over whom the playwright stands in righteous judgment. His “Really Really” characters were more enjoyable to spend time with because through them he sounded a caustically relevant alarm, about the repercussions of growing up in an age of entitlement. This new play merely recycles the points in an old argument.
Signature, though, in producing a second Colaizzo piece, is committing to this playwright in exactly the way a company should, building a relationship with a talented writer, letting the chips fall. It’s gone first-class, too, with the choices of director, designers and cast. One hopes this is one in an ongoing series of Colaizzo plays that find a home in the Village at Shirlington.
The Falls of Autrey Mill is the tortured and somewhat ironic name of the high-end development somewhere in the New South, presumably Georgia, where Carly and Louie raised their now-grown sons. They’re at home in designer James Noone’s generic set of an open-plan living room and kitchen, as Carly prepares to be photographed for the subdivision newsletter: her lovely garden has been picked as the neighborhood’s best.
It’s hard to miss the allusions here to cosmetic perfection, to the idea of acceptable scents covering far less pleasant ones. The play opens with Bowden’s Chad confessing his sexuality to Carly, who tries to temper the unsettling news of Chad’s gayness with the somehow comforting notion that Chad plays the more conventionally masculine role in the relationship — in every imaginable sense. “Please tell me YOU pay the check,” Lahti says meaningfully, in the cadences of the iron-willed matriarchs on “Toddlers and Tiaras.”
A confessional domino effect takes hold, as Tommy and Louie reveal secrets about themselves too, shaking Carly and, as theater would have it, the very walls of the house. It’s apparent that for all the attention Carly has paid to the exteriors of her life, she and Louie have let love slip out the kitchen door, to especially deleterious effect on their sons, who have sought physical solace down a most taboo of familial avenues.
Lahti’s natural effervescence, combined with the mask of aplomb she manages to drop at pivotal moments, makes Carly a figure of some passive-aggressive delectability. A pair of scenes in a hall closet, well-written by Colaizzo and well-orchestrated by Kahn, features Lahti on the phone to neighbors, engaged in that odd game of double-edged compliments and simpering one-upmanship that passes in dysfunctional situations for friendship. She proves to be a master at registering with a glance the vicissitudes of these conversations, the tiny triumphs and defeats that occur in these battles on the land line.
Other times, she and her fellow actors — Duvall is especially good as a husband whose bonhomie has evaporated — have to wade through so much emotional catastrophe that they barely have time to catch their collective breath. And a scene in which the serial disclosures devolve into domestic chaos may be fun to watch, but it comes across as a fairly empty comedic gesture.
Bowden and McFarland are successful in conveying the petulant anger of being the object of a mother’s disappointment. The messes their characters make are the revenges they exact on the immaculate Carly. In a less predictable venture, their behavior might even allow us to feel something more urgent than what we’ve felt before.
By Paul Downs Colaizzo. Directed by Michael Kahn. Set, James Noone; costumes, Frank Labovitz; lighting, Andrew Scharwath; sound, Palmer Hefferan. About 1 hour 40 minutes. Tickets: $30-$104 Through Dec. 8 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. Visit www.signature-theatre.org or call 703-573-7328.