You know something is awry when you open your Playbill to find two actors listed, playing characters that are mentioned more than once throughout a 75-minute running time, only to realize, post-curtain call, that they never once physically materialized. Somehow a fully-cast sextet sloppily became a quartet in Beth Henley’s logy, often risible play Family Week, which marks a depressing first-time-out theater effort from master filmmaker Jonathan Demme, whose unmatched concert films showed his remarkable stage chops. And furthermore, as demonstrated in his searing, compassionate 2008 picture Rachel Getting Married, skewed family dysfunction would seem to cling to him like bees to a honeycomb. But this hive is unfortunately all hollowed-out.
The setting is a serene desert rehab center during family week, as Claire (luminous Rosemarie DeWitt) attempts to rebound after the murder of her son, with her mother (Kathleen Chalfant), sister (Quincy Tyler Bernstine, in a nod to the nontraditional casting prevalent in Demme’s films), and bratty cheerleader daughter Kay (Sami Gayle) all in attendance. Clutching a $95 stuffed bear as a sort of security blanket, Claire addresses us in monologues as to the state of her being while her slightly askew family attempts to restructure their ties in Henley’s signature eccentric style. Or at least I think it’s supposed to be eccentric, as humor virtually never rears its head here, nor does a particularly strong guiding hand. Scenes clumsily smack into each other (did those excised players contribute more than we’re seeing?), and even its more showy inventions, such as all four actresses playing a key therapist at different intervals, never make any impactful sense.
DeWitt fares best, having the fullest character to draw upon, but poor Chalfant and Bernstine—two splendid actresses—never seem to have much of a handle on theirs. The less said about the repeated, screeching wail inflicted on us by Gayle the better; when DeWitt attacks her with her stuffed bear late in the play, you practically have to restrain yourself from cheering.
I don’t imagine there was ever much of a distinctive work here (this play was considered tiresome 10 years ago when it originally premiered), but one hoped Demme could coax some of his delicate humanism out of it. (Personally, choosing this clunker versus something like Henley’s The Miss Firecracker Contest—a kismet match for him—is lost on me.) It’s telling that throughout the play one sees a dry-erase board with the following words written on it to display primary emotions: ANGER PAIN SHAME GUILT FEAR LONELINESS. Chances are you’ll be feeling at least a few of them while enduring Family Week.
Family Week is now playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre (121 Christopher St.) in New York City through May 23. Schedule: Tue & Wed at 7pm, Thu-Sat at 8pm, Sat at 2pm, Sun at 3pm. Running time: 1 hours and 15 minutes, no intermission.