There are far darker and harsher ways to tell the story of “Another Way Home,” a comic drama by Anna Ziegler that you can call “sweet” despite the torrent of F-bombs a teen named Joey unloads on his parents. Ziegler’s 90-minute play is amusing, yet it’s also grim and tense as an eager New York couple flies to Maine to see their son at summer camp. Joey is plainly wound up (he has been diagnosed with an array of illnesses that include depression) and can’t find a civil word for anyone.
Philip, the father, lamely tries to relate, keeping things jolly and calling Joey “J-Dog.” Ultimately Philip snaps and tells Joey to get lost. Then Joey’s gone.
Ziegler is the writer whose entertaining science drama “Photograph 51” was commissioned by the local Active Cultures Theatre, played Theater J in 2011 and is now a vehicle for Nicole Kidman (a London hit last year and targeted for New York this fall). In “Another Way Home,” Ziegler doesn’t tell her story in radically interesting ways, but the premise is almost effortlessly gripping, and the highly intelligent acting in Shirley Serotsky’s production at Theater J is funny and aching in all the right spots.
It’s beautifully cast: Rick Foucheux, who is winding down his wonderful long career on D.C. stages, is an understated marvel as Philip. Foucheux’s pensive Philip is both easygoing and explosive, and as Foucheux exactingly trots out Philip’s frustrations, the marital battles triggered by the sudden crisis feel rooted in a long, complicated history.
As Philip’s wife, Lillian, Naomi Jacobson is an even match with Foucheux, standing toe to toe as they fret and fight. The charm of the performance is the way both actors — as expert with language as anyone in town — deftly settle into a tone that includes the odd burst of comic relief, something Ziegler allows by starting the play with husband and wife addressing us and describing their trip to Maine. Philip and Lillian tell it differently, of course, and Foucheux and Jacobson are endearing from the start.
Yet within the first 10 minutes, you also feel how messed up everything is with Joey and how crossed up these smart adults are about how to raise a confused and unhappy kid. Joey is a baffling, gnarled mystery, even to himself: That’s the truthful riddle at the heart of the play, and Chris Stinson inhabits this simmering cauldron of a character with a fury that’s often just plain rude. At the same time, Stinson subtly generates empathy for what Joey’s going through. It’s an admirably balanced performance.
Ziegler rounds out the picture through Joey’s perspective-lending bunkmate, Mike (a patient and polite Thony Mena), and Joey’s brainiac sister, the Taylor Swift-loving Nora (a wonderfully wound-up and wise Shayna Blass). At a glance, the show looks purely comic: Paige Hathaway’s cabin set is built of logs and spells out “Camp Kickapoo” over the stage. It’s fundamentally light and all rather conventional, and the quick ending may strike some viewers as a bit of a patch. The family’s difficult reckonings and redefinitions come across as honest and sincere, though, and Ziegler’s direct style is an asset. “Another Way Home” isn’t technically innovative, and it’s not a big or shattering play. But it’s a good one, and splendidly played.
Another Way Home, by Anna Ziegler. Directed by Shirley Serotsky. Costumes, Debra Kim Sevigny; lights, Harold F. Burgess II; sound design, Matthew Nielson. About 90 minutes. Through July 17 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Tickets: $37-$67. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org.