Levitt or Leave It


We don’t typically quibble with Leo Tolstoy, but are unhappy families really so different? Or are they rather like the endless rows of postwar homes that William Levitt built on Long Island? Returning veterans and NYC emigrants could choose between a Levittown Cape Cod or Ranch home, perhaps even pick an exterior color, but sameness reigned. Just so, it’s a familiar familial misery that calls Palmieri’s Levittown home.

Fifty years ago, grandfather Edmund bought “a charming house in a delightful community.” There he raised Jack, a tortured fireman, and Katherine, undone by a brutal husband and bitter divorce. When Katherine returns to the family manse, she brings her kids Colleen, a reformed “bulimic coke tramp,” and Kevin, a perpetual college dropout. With Colleen engaged to an amiable neighborhood boy, Kevin attempts his father’s return to the fold. But, as in many a dysfunctional family drama, tears and recrimination crash the wedding party.

In the play’s opening scene, Kevin muses, “This whole town was like a dream. It was a dream. Bill Levitt built thousands of these houses on scrap left over from the war.” Palmieri clearly intends the architecture to serve as analogue to the family’s experiences. What seemed stable and well-intentioned is revealed as restrictive, slapdash, even claustrophobic. Palmieri also troubles his play with eeriness and portent. Edmund recalls a World War II battle in which he alone survived. When he asks a nurse why God spared him, she replies, “I don’t know, Edmund. But maybe it’s . . . because He hates you.” Edmund also receives visits from his dead wife, who warns, “We’ll move to Long Island and have two kids and grandkids. And God, they will suffer.”

Palmieri crafts some striking exchanges and a few distinct characters (Colleen, played by Margo Passalaqua, resonates especially), but his script doesn’t support the solemnity it’s freighted with. Family members behave outrageously or anguishedly, but unsurprisingly. Despite Palmieri’s efforts, and those of director George Demas and the largely fine cast, they simply aren’t breaking any new ground—they’re simply embellishing a very familiar set of blueprints.