How will the expansion of the American family influence the domestic drama—that most durable and venerable of genres? Will our stages still be dominated by an endless supply of formulaic tales of dysfunction and healing? Or will playwrights imagine new possibilities from definitions of marriage and clan that grow more fluid every day? How will all those living-room plays from earlier eras look in revivals, once the public grows accustomed to this wider spectrum of choices for coupling, marriage, and parenthood?
Harbor, a new play by Chad Beguelin (now running at Primary Stages), might make a good test case. In Beguelin’s story of familial pain and growth, questions loom about what we actually need from relationships of blood and love—and how we choose them. The playwright gives equal weight to our emotional and material desires, but keeps the debate narrow and simple.
The kinship confusion is triggered by the surprise visit of Donna (Erin Cummings), a drifter living out of her van, to her brother Kevin’s fancy Sag Harbor home. She’s pregnant, unemployed, and has her 15-year-old daughter, Lottie (Alexis Molnar), in tow. Their invasion upends the sedate household shared by Kevin (Randy Harrison) and his husband, Ted (Paul Anthony Stewart), a successful architect.
Andrew Jackness’s set, projecting the neighborhood’s leafy affluence onto every wall, artfully suggests what the have-not guests see and the spoiled residents enjoy. The economic contrast is not exactly subtle: Donna shoplifts and gives hand jobs to pay for food, while the bourgie gays fuss over their parquet floors and shopping. (When Kevin admonishes, “We don’t live in a Disney animated feature, Donna,” his sister caustically replies, “Could have fooled me.”)
It helps that Cummings plays Donna as a Sandra Bernhard type, an embittered bon vivant whose resentments and desperation eventually boil to the surface. The character of Lottie, Donna’s daughter, is written as a bookish scold to her louche parent; it’s a mother-daughter pair that could have come straight out of Absolutely Fabulous, except for all the self-psychologizing dialogue.
Beguelin could have used this scenario to open up a rich Shavian contretemps over how different classes settle on their ethics for marriage and family obligations. Instead, and regrettably, Harbor veers into far more predictable territory, ending up somewhere between soap opera and neo-Tennessee Williams (complete with stilted lyricism and a requisite pathos-laden birthday party scene). The repetitive dialogue is spiked with supposedly ironic lifestyle jokes (viz. Donna’s comment that “your uncle lives in a wedding cake with a hyphenated last name”). And too often the script devolves into I’m-going-to-walk-out-that-door/no-you’re-not tirades.
Still, the strong cast, crisply directed by Mark Lamos, manages to rise above the limitations of a television-like script that harps on easy symbols (such as Donna’s dream of a cruise ship gig, the mythical equivalent of Blanche DuBois’s Belle Reve). The production’s standout is the dreamy Harrison, who brings a compelling authenticity to the character of Kevin, whose tentativeness masks his pain.
Ultimately, of course, this relational strife must get sorted out: Both households must reorganize to account for new realities. As they do, the family of the future looks a lot like the ones we’ve seen before, onstage and off.