by Samuel L. Leiter
A group of disparate people gathering for a weekend at a country or beach house—what a lovely idea for a play! At least that’s what writers as gifted as Noël Coward (Hay Fever), Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler (A Little Night Music), Terrence McNally (Lips Together Teeth Apart), Donald Margulies (The Country House), and many others have thought. The newest addition to this subgenre is talented playwright Melissa Ross’s largely entertaining family comedy, Of Good Stock, which premiered at the South Coast Repertory and is now at the Manhattan Theatre Club in a finely acted production smartly staged by MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow.
Ross sets us down at the Stockton family’s lovely Cape Cod home (attractively designed by the great Santo Loquasto) in July, where four weekend guests join food writer Fred (Kelly AuCoin) and his wife Jess (Jennifer Mudge) to celebrate her forty-first birthday. Jess’s father was Mick Stockton, a famous writer who bequeathed her the house and whose family name inspires the punning title. Using a revolving stage, the action moves smoothly from the interior to several exterior locales, including a boatless dock. Soon we meet the bickering younger Stockton sisters, the flakey, childlike, thirty-one-year-old Celia (Heather Lind), called “Cee,” and Amy (Alicia Silverstone), the whiny, tantrum-throwing, self-involved middle one; with Amy is her fiancé, Josh (Greg Keller), who’s meeting the others for the first time. Arriving a bit later is Hunter (Nate Miller), Celia’s chubby, bearded boyfriend, one of thirteen siblings, a thirty-year-old undergrad, who’s gotten Celia pregnant.
Plot plays second fiddle to sprightly dialogue and character revelation in this often funny, borderline schmaltzy comedy, with most of the attention going to the internecine squabbles and reconciliations among three unhappy sisters. Amy, preoccupied with her impending wedding, is a control freak who pushes Josh a bit too far; the maternal Jess, a judgmental micromanager, is a cancer victim recovering from a mastectomy but with a gloomy prognosis; and Cee, unable to sustain a romantic relationship for more than six months, displays the tics of an insecure teenager, even in the way she sprawls instead of sits.
The sisters struggle to deal with their personal problems while battling the demons of sibling rivalry, compounded by the looming influence on their lives of their famous dad, a notorious philanderer, and their mom, who died of cancer at 40. Ross provides a cathartic scene late in the play when the women are alone, sitting on the dock, reminiscing about their youth and working out their issues, lubricating their tongues and feelings with a $2,000 bottle of scotch. Mudge, Lind, and Silverstone are thoroughly effective, but, after a while, their nonstop love-hate angst wears on one’s patience.
The male characters are wonderfully likable—including Josh, the victim of several strained contrivances—made even more appealing by the charmingly personable performances they’re given. Josh, before he makes an early departure, has a great moment that gets a robust laugh when, suddenly recognizing with perfect clarity what his future with the demanding Amy will be, says, softly, head in hands, “This is. My life… This is gonna be my life.” AuCoin’s Fred, in his ugly plaid pants, is a sweetheart, so even-tempered and good humored in the face of everyone’s crises that you want him as your best friend. Miller is ideal as Hunter, a dude from Missoula, Montana, who adds a question mark to the simplest declarative sentences, and is viewed skeptically by Cee’s sisters, but reveals a heart and sense of humor (as well as an appetite) as big as the great outdoors.
Act I is a delight, providing the necessary exposition for appreciating the characters; Act II, not so much, because the stakes never rise to a higher level. There are no big gotcha moments, just more character-exposing small talk, including a touching scene between Fred and Jess. I admit to welling up at several moments and to laughing loudly now and then, but in general, once I knew who was who and what they felt about each other, there wasn’t much else to take home from this weekend in the country.
Of Good Stock
Manhattan Theatre Club at City Center Stage 1
131 West 51st Street, NYC
Through July 26
Samuel L. Leiter is Distinguished Professor Emeritus (Theater) of Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. He has written and/or edited 27 books on Japanese theater, New York theater, Shakespeare, and the great stage directors. For more of his reviews, visit Theatre’s Leiter Side (www.slleiter.blogspot.com).