Thank heavens for emasculating mothers and alcoholic fathers and promiscuous sons and self-destructive daughters. Without them, where would the American theater be?
Disturbing family dynamics have hovered over the stage since the days of Aeschylus, but there may be no higher volume of home-life dysfunction than in the pages of anthologies of American plays. Perhaps it's because of our devotion to Freud, our faith in the power of confession, or an insatiable voyeurism; from O'Neill to Miller, Shepard to Albee, virtually every major American dramatist has weighed in with a contemptuous slap at the sanctity of our most sacred institution. And we keep adding to the litany, in an ever-expanding subdivision of distressed households.
The question is, how much room is left on the block? On the evidence of Deborah Zoe Laufer's "The Last Schwartz," there's still some satisfying mud to be slung around the theatrical living room. Laufer's dark comedy also offers hints that as a springboard to conventional forms of drama, the family may at long last be deserving of a little breather.
"The Last Schwartz" is far and away the most intriguing play to emerge from the Contemporary American Theatre Festival, which has been offering new works each summer since 1991 on the campus of Shepherd College here. The festival's other straight plays, Eric Coble's "Bright Ideas" and Lee Blessing's "Whores," are lesser achievements: Coble's satire on preschool admissions is too broad and contrived, and Blessing's burlesque meditation on the murder of three nuns and a lay Catholic worker in Central America devolves quickly into tedious agitprop.
A new musical, Erin Cressida Wilson's "Wilder," is the fourth entry in the festival, which runs through Aug. 3; because the show is making its New York debut at Playwrights Horizons this fall, festival organizers asked that it not be reviewed.
The Shepherdstown festival is not unique -- in fact, playwrights and actors showcased here also turn up regularly at the Humana Festival for new plays in Louisville each spring -- but the smaller West Virginia event may give writers a more agreeable platform. Humana, with twice as many plays on offer, often ends up feeling like an assembly line; in Shepherdstown, the possibility exists for theatergoers actually to retain specific memories of all the things they've seen.
In a time, too, when not-for-profit theater seems increasingly hesitant about investing heavily in new work, the immersion here can almost be as bracing as a day of tubing on the Potomac, regardless of whether everything one sees is ready to move on to other stages. And it's especially invigorating when a distinctive voice has the opportunity to rise freshly from the pack.
Laufer gets just such a moment with "The Last Schwartz." Ostensibly the reunion of four siblings and a couple of their significant others on the first anniversary of the death of the clan's patriarch, the play is also a clear-eyed if unflattering portrait of a poison in the bloodstream of Jewish American life.
As such, it's a rather brave examination of the havoc that a transient culture can wreak on the soul. The siblings gather in the home of their dead parents in Upstate New York, on the eve of the unveiling of their father's gravestone. It's apparent that the powerful currents swirling in the modern world -- materialism, assimilation -- have taken their toll on the surviving Schwartzes. Norma (Carolyn Swift), the keeper of the family flame, is a shrill, divorced control freak whose son no longer talks to her; Herb (Lee Sellars), married to gentile Bonnie (Jennifer Mudge), is a restless, money-crazed cynic; Gene (Daniel Cantor) is a director of commercials who lives with a witless hedonistic actress, Kia (Coleen Sexton). He is in some ways the angriest Schwartz, the one most deeply alienated from his roots.
Most bizarrely there is Simon (Aaron Kliner), a reclusive astronomer with an aversion to human contact so extreme he cannot stand to be touched. He's also going blind, which is especially perplexing to the family, as Simon spends much of his time in front of a telescope, peering into a universe that is, for him, a literal void.
In typical dysfunctional-family fashion, the brothers and sister snipe at, bicker with and betray one another. Laufer is not above easy cliche; Bonnie's secret dalliance is nothing more than a facile plot complication. And Kliner's Simon -- the Cassandra of the piece, predicting the end not only of the Jewish people but also of humankind -- is a calculated expression of poetic whimsy. Like a loose puppy, he draws attention to himself. He seems out of place in the play.
Still, in its suggestion of a proud tradition inching toward extinction, "The Last Schwartz" also demonstrates a capacity for eloquence. "What happened to us? Why aren't we a real family?" Norma asks in one desperate exchange. "This," Herb replies, "is what a real family is."
Director Lucie Tiberghien is an expert framer of the Schwartzes' tantrums and psychodramas; a fine balance has been struck between hilarity and pathos. Swift's Norma, Cantor's Gene, Sellars's Herb and Mudge's Bonnie all contribute grandly to the anguished family album. Sexton's flighty Kia is even better; rarely have the words "cool" and "wow" been enunciated on a stage with more comic nuance.
Sure-footed performances are the most admirable elements of "Bright Ideas" and "Whores." The former is an outlandish depiction of the competitiveness of the yuppie classes and how far a professional couple will go to get their 3-year-old into a fashionable preschool. Although the setup has it rewards -- Catherine Curtin is particularly good as a passive-aggressive rival mom boasting of her child's spot in the school -- the air goes out of the play the minute the "Macbeth"-like couple at its heart, played by Sellars and Mudge, reveal the homicidal lengths of their ambitions.
"Whores," too, boasts some top-flight actors, among them Shawn Elliott as a buffoonish, libidinous Latin American general, exiled in Florida, and Maryann Urbano as his WASPish wife. But the play, an exploration of the coarse mind of a military man with the blood of martyred religious workers on his hands, is a dreary catalogue of violent and pornographic impulses. Ed Herendeen's staging attempts to imbue the work with the grandeur of one of Brecht's epics. In its unstinting evocation of degeneracy, however, the piece is relentlessly one-note.
Contemporary American Theatre Festival, Shepherdstown, W.Va. Through Aug 3. Call 304-876-3473 or visit www.catf.org.