By Harry Forbes
The solid performances of Nathan Lane, Zoë Wanamaker, and Danny Burstein are the most striking points of interest here. The play itself -- Sharr White's adaptation of Larry Sultan's pictorial memoir of the same name -- is, sorry to say, somewhat less than compelling.
I must confess I took my seat with absolutely no foreknowledge of what I was about to see. Nor, I'm ashamed to admit, had I even glanced at the title page of the Playbill where I would have learned that what I was about to see was based on the aforementioned source material. So I watched the play under the mistaken notion it was entirely a creation of the playwright.
And from that point of view, I found it only intermittently engaging, and oddly repetitive. The action centers on photographer Larry (Burstein), who lives in San Francisco with his wife and family, and his frequent periodic visits to his aging parents in their San Fernando Valley home, capturing them in staged portraits while interviewing them about the past. The photos, including many from his childhood, are projected on the back wall. (The Sultans had moved from Brooklyn to California in 1949.)
Irving Sultan (Lane), the father, a former Schick razor salesman, is alternately compliant and ornery about his son's purpose. Realtor mother Jean (Wanamaker) is skeptical but overall more agreeable as she also tries to mediate between father and son.
The photographs displayed are, as I figured out later, the actual Sultans. In my initial ignorance, I assumed they were just anonymous models so that the production would not be reliant on the current cast. Knowing the facts makes things somewhat more interesting to me in hindsight.
Larry Sultan, who died in 2009, had said “I wanted to puncture this mythology of the family and show what happens when we are driven by images of success. And I was willing to use my family to prove a point.”
White has done his best to give a somewhat repetitive situation a viable dramatic arc. And, along the way, there is a lot of wit and home truths about family and the American Dream ideal of what success was supposed to look like in postwar America. There are even some interesting Willy Loman-like overtones to Irving’s backstory. And there’s real conflict when we learn that Jean has, in fact, been the virtual breadwinner since Irving stopped working. But even so, a certain tedium sets in.
White’s script gives Lane plenty of opportunity to shine including a powerful dramatic outburst at one point. And we’re so accustomed to seeing American-born but UK-raised Wanamaker on her customary English turf, that it’s quite a novelty to see her as in this very American part which she carries off with customary aplomb. She matches Lane’s strong performance, and also gets her big moment amidst all the finely detailed smaller ones. Irving and Jean’s bickering throughout the play sounds wonderfully natural.
The very versatile Burstein, a mainstay of musicals, is predictably excellent, but Larry is a rather thankless role and we soon empathize with Irving's annoyance at his son's relentless probing. The play is constructed so that Danny breaks the fourth wall (as do the others occasionally) and takes the audience into his friendly confidence but the overall effect is still a bit smarmy.
Michael Yeagen’s set (astutely lighted by Jennier Tipton) -- the couple's spacious living room -- encompasses the different eras of the play’s action, and allows plenty of space for the giant projections throughout. Jennifer Moeller’s period costumes are enhanced by Tommy Kurzman’s wig/hair and makeup which includes a white wig for Lane.
There's understated poignancy in the final minutes of the play, and Bartlett Sher’s direction is as impeccable as ever, but I wish I could have been more genuinely moved.
(Studio 54, 254 West 54th Street; picturesfromhomebroadway.com; through April 30)
Photo by Julieta Cervantes:
(l to r): Danny Burstein, Zoë Wanamaker, and Nathan LanePrint this post
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