Here’s one of the toughest of all form vs. content dilemmas: How do you craft narrative art out of the slog of unhappy family life, making something true to that slog but not a slog itself? Bob Glaudini’s A Family for All Occasions, the bruised-up but moving new play from the Labyrinth Theater Company, soaks us in the minute-to-minute of workaday American dysfunction. What chatter anyone can muster escalates to screaming that is forgotten as soon as it passes. The shouted words don’t mean much—for the kids, volume is a way to cut off go-nowhere conversations.
The only time anyone ever dares to speak the truths that matter most comes when they find themselves briefly alone: “Boring,” erupts Sam (Charlie Saxton), a college-age kid shlubbed into sweatpants. Sam’s stepmom, May (Deirdre O’Connell), recovering from a long shift and the usual domestic fracas, sighs, “The things that torture me.” Then, because asides don’t work in life, her husband, Howard, hollers “What?” from the kitchen. “Never mind,” she says.
Sound miserable? It could be, but Glaudini’s script is steeped in human truths that the performers (directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman) honor and embody. There’s hurting here, but also much humor—and even, by the end, a glance against something that resembles hope.
Retired dad Howard (Jeffrey DeMunn) putters about a cramped house aching for someone to talk to—about books, words, neighbors, anything. May trudges home from this country’s last remaining factory job and wishes everyone would shut up. The kids, grown up but not adult, want nothing to do with Howard or May, and each offers to the world the one thing they think it wants. For Sam it’s his skill at computer games, which he might have it in him to design. For rangy beauty Sue (Justine Lupe) it’s her desirability, always on blunt display.
Into these dispiriting lives glides Oz (William Jackson Harper), a gentleman caller with all the wish-granting power his name suggests. Courting Sue, Oz charms Howard with his heady vocabulary and promises Sam and Sue the computer and wardrobe they crave.
Of course, like all guys named Oz—and all gentlemen callers—Oz wants something in return. He’s a foster kid, and even though he’s charming, sharply dressed, and supremely well spoken, he seems to believe that this pickled home is just the place for him. He’s a chatty optimist who believes against all evidence that he can lift the spirits around him.
For all its squabbles and strained silences, the Laboratory production is often funny, especially in the early scenes between Oz and the family, or when Saxton lets loose his bitchy eye rolls as Sam, the platonic ideal for sullen, dismissive, yet weirdly self-confident teen boys. It’s also tense: Late in the show, Hoffman stages a quiet, unsettling scene of Howard fixing a lamp while fussing with his earbuds. The mind reels with potential catastrophes.
The cast manages an agitated artlessness, their words bursting from the characters. Hoffman indulges in some moments of clowning—May getting off on a foot-massager; Sam taking a Naked Gun-style piss—that cut against the production’s naturalism. Mostly, though, the performances are shrewdly judged and affecting. The stage is alive with real people whose miseries somehow balm our own.