Theater archives

Loose Screws in Family Week and Asylum


Someone should open a recovery center for plays. When a drama or comedy has lost its way—strung out, confused, hanging with all the wrong plot twists—it could go off and dry out for 28 days, returning to the stage stronger and more clear-headed. Beth Henley’s Family Week at MCC, set at a desert clinic, ought to check itself in immediately. Actually, this awkward piece, which debuted in New York a decade ago, was supposed to have benefited from substantial pre-revival rehabilitation. It has not.

Film director Jonathan Demme has imported a couple of cast members from his recent Rachel Getting Married (Rosemarie DeWitt and Quincy Tyler Bernstine) and a similar queasy emotionalism. After the murder of her son, Claire (DeWitt) has decamped to a treatment center where she participates in dubious therapies, such as lugging around a giant stuffed bear. Her mother (Kathleen Chalfant), sister (Bernstine), and daughter (Sami Gayle) have joined her for seven days of mutual recrimination and mind games.

Henley seems undecided as to whether she has written a serious play or a satire. The repeated avowals that “this is the best treatment center in the country” certainly suggest a spoof, as does Claire’s revelation that she has been diagnosed “with PTSD, an eating disorder, clinical depression, uncontrolled rage, hypervigilance, and, I think, other things—insomnia.” Yet Henley seems to desire the intense cathartic payoff of a graver play. It never arrives. Though the script is the worst of the production’s ills, Demme’s direction does not improve matters. From four able actresses, he has coaxed stilted and shrill performances. Bernstine has a panicked look in her eyes that suggests she’d rather be anywhere but onstage. DeWitt and Chalfant seem exhausted. Gayle screams. Frequently.

The counselor at the center (played by all the actresses in turn) identifies six primary emotions: anger, pain, shame, guilt, loneliness, and fear. Watching Family Week, I felt them all—fear, most particularly. Though the play runs only 75 minutes, I was often seized with the conviction that it might never end. Terrifying.

James Braly’s Asylum, also set in a mental-health facility, doesn’t require a full 12-step program, though it could use a day or two of detox to sweat out some of its infelicities. A champion storyteller with a mane of graying hair and an equine grin, Braly relates a teenage stint in a psychiatric hospital. At 17, he entered voluntarily in order to kick a marijuana habit and save himself from flunking out of high school.

Braly’s tale does not lack for incident. In the course of his story, he loses a kidney, journeys to the Philippines, and joins a band called Alloy: A Fusion of Metals—to say nothing of his sojourn in the psych ward. Yet Braly is not a natural dramatist or actor. His technique of bookending his monologue with a scene from the present day involving his sister’s attempted suicide is hoary, and his habit of laughing lustily at his own jokes, while first endearing, turns annoying. But Braly is an engaging narrator. If he’s determined to check himself into the nuthouse, you’re happy enough to join him.