The experience of Zoe Kazan’s We Live Here is like watching a Rube Goldberg contraption execute its moves in slow motion. The machine is dense and complicated, the relationship of the various dormant mechanical aspects unclear until they participate, the finish anticlimactic.
Maggie (Amy Irving) and Lawrence (Mark Blum) occupy a large, old, slightly worn New England home perfect for family gatherings. It’s the weekend of their daughter Althea’s (Jessica Collins) wedding to Sandy (Jeremy Shamos). Back to back events have been meticulously worked out by mom, a list-maker extraordinaire. Drawn to her daughter’s wedding gifts as if to forbidden candy, Maggie madly unwraps one after the other while looking over her shoulder lest she be caught in the act. She lacks self control. Younger daughter, Dinah (Betty Gilpin), arrives. A bundle of tics and nerves, she agonizes over having invited her new beau, Daniel, (Oscar Isaac) without clearing it. Repeated unsuccessful phone calls are made. Apparently he’s persona non grata. Dinah will stay in Andie’s old room. (We don’t learn until later Althea had an identical twin, Andie, who died in an accident). Nothing major seems amiss. A little conflict will pepper the plot, we think.
Lawrence, Althea and Sandy return from town. Althea and her fiancé act like lovebirds. She’s upset her gifts have been violated. “The only reason anyone wants presents is to open them,” she pouts. Sandy deflects the unsteady emotions rising around him (throughout the play) with warmth and humor. Lawrence disappears into the background. The doorbell rings. Dinah screams, “don’t answer it!” It’s Daniel, of course. Surprise is palpable. The now 30 year old man spent his teenage years half living in the house while his diplomat parents traveled. He thinks of it as a second home and assumes his way has been cleared. It’s been 12 years. The elephant in the room is the unexplained breech. Not only is his presence unexpected but the family must digest his dating Dinah, many years his junior and the second daughter with whom he’s had a relationship—Andie having been the first. Meanwhile, Althea has frozen like a deer in headlights at the sight of him. “Oh, God, I’m going to pass out!” The happy occasion is, in fact, a gathering crammed with repression, guilt and secrets.
Towards the end of the first act, Sandy conversationally asks his father-in-law to be, an academic, what he’s writing. Lawrence hesitantly discusses the concept of Hamartia, a Greek term developed by Aristotle meaning an injury committed in ignorance. Other interpretations of the term are “sin,” or “moral deficit.” Lawrence grows overwhelmed with his explanation and excuses himself. In retrospect, we understand that Maggie and Lawrence are suffering hamartia. Dysfunction and tragedy rule this family. Unfortunately, the interjection of lengthy philosophy sits like a clog in the drain, impeding flow and furrowing the brow in search of application.
We Live Here is an interesting play, but extremely problematic in its construction. The first act is overlong with unnecessary exposition and dialogue, while the second feels compressed, showing us perhaps not quite enough. Several characters seem like plot devices. It’s a pity as the tale itself is meaty; its slow, surprising disclosure a potentially fine way to proceed, and a some roles beautifully realized.
Amy Irving—too long away from the New York stage—(Maggie) is completely credible as the matriarch who’s made surface peace with her demons and functions with efficient veneer. You can practically hear her coping mechanisms scrape as she reacts on a beat. When these finally give out, she’s a bird in the throes of a volcano. It’s visceral and horrific.
Jessica Collins (Althea) is a slow burn. As the play progresses, the actress embodies facet after facet of her unstable character, each with its own stubborn, self-involved, flailing reality. That you want to shake her is a compliment. I attribute a lack of depth to Althea, not Collins.
Jeremy Shamos (Sandy) is a find. From the moment he comes on stage, one’s attention is drawn. The actor imbues Sandy with a grounded presence around which others spin. A lesser talent might’ve seemed jarred. His easy quips and the simplicity with which he reveals a little of his own history seem perfectly natural.
Mark Blum (Lawrence) has ripened qualities possessed by the younger Isaac. An always dependable player, his economy of performance stills and focuses the moment. Blum manages to effect a kind of not unpleasant stoicism perfectly indicative of Lawrence.
Betty Gilpin (Dinah) and Oscar Isaac (Daniel) suffer from a combination of under writing and unspecific characterization. Gilpin’s Dinah is consistently and evenly nothing but nerves. Isaac’s Daniel is a cipher. His best turn is as his 16 year-old self where confusion is appropriate.
Director Sam Gold beautifully uses the whole of the elaborate set. It’s as if his characters were living in situ. Physical manifestations of emotion are well played and carefully positioned among occasions of subjugated articulation. The relationships of Maggie and Lawrence, Althea and Sandy, and Althea as a young girl with Daniel are all deftly indicated. There seems to be none at all between the sisters, however.
Once again John Lee Beatty has given us a house not only architecturally interesting and exact, but whose every detail speaks of its inhabitants. Pocket and French doors, a functional stairwell, kitchen, dining room, living room, and den provide ample opportunity for scene variation. The place is cozy, worn, and cluttered.
David Zinn’s Costumes are aptly casual and practical though uniformly unflattering.
Photos by Joan Marcus, from top:
1. The cast of We Live Here
2. Amy Irving, Jeremy Shamos, and Jessica Collins
3. Betty Gilpin, Jessica Collins, and Jeremy Shamos
4. Betty Gilpin and Amy Irving
5. Mark Blum
The Manhattan Theatre Club
We Live Here by Zoe Kazan
Directed by Sam Gold
New York City Center Stage 1
131 West 55th Street
Through November 6, 2011