We Live Here Broods on a Brood

Zoe Kazan's family drama debuts at MTC

It’s the furniture that gives it away. The taupe sectional, the chic throw pillows, the scatter of books and ornaments. A theatrical maxim: The more tasteful the furnishings, the greater the assortment of fresh wounds and past calamities. An attractive living room spells sorrowful living for the Batemans, the New England clan at the bruised heart of Zoe Kazan’s We Live Here at MTC.

Mother Maggie (Amy Irving), father Larry (Mark Blum), and their two surviving daughters, Dinah (Betty Gilpin) and Allie (Jessica Collins), have converged for Allie’s wedding to Sandy (Jeremy Shamos). Tensions rise when Dinah announces her intention to bring an unwelcome plus-one, but they’ve never been far below the surface.

Kazan’s play is engaging in its dialogue, hamstrung in its structure. Though few of the lines prove memorable, Kazan has an enviable ear for naturalistic speech, and the talk hurries on in a more or less compelling manner, even as you wonder whether exposition and reproach will ever give way to plot. And then cataclysm suddenly occurs—once in the present and once, via flashback, in the past.

Hamartia, anyone? Gilpin, Collins, and Shamos
Joan Marcus
Hamartia, anyone? Gilpin, Collins, and Shamos

In the midst of the play, Larry, a classics scholar, launches into a brief lecture about hamartia, the “tragic error” afflicting Greek heroes. Some theorists, he explains, believe that protagonists bring tragedy upon themselves via an inborn flaw. Others claim that Oedipus and Medea are condemned owing simply to ordinary errors in judgment. But in We Live Here, when disaster does arise, it seems borne not out of character or moral lapse, but from script contrivance.

Director Sam Gold achieved wonders last season with Bathsheba Doran’s Kin, a middling script from which he coaxed quiet, deeply felt performances. He can’t work that same sorcery here, but he does encourage the characters to underplay their unhappiness, affectingly in the case of the ever-excellent Shamos, somewhat less successfully with Collins and Gilpin.

Yet maybe audiences enjoy these welters of dysfunction and discontent. Such scenes remind us that our own domestic arrangements can’t possibly be so wretched. As Daniel (Oscar Isaac), the unwanted guest, explains to Dinah, “I like it here. It’s totally fucked.”

 
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