Any playwright who’s going to have his heroine’s life fall to pieces the instant the lights come up would be well advised to have Christine Lahti on hand.
Before a word has been uttered at Signature Theatre, the Oscar-, Emmy-, and Golden Globe–winning actress inhabits Carly—the dutiful housewife-mom-flower-arranger who’s going to have the rug pulled out from under her in the domestic comedy Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill—and breathes a world of stick-to-itiveness into her.
Seriously. Breathes it into her.
Playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo has poised Carly and Chad, the younger of her two grown sons, on opposite sides of a dining room table, and from the expectant look on Chad’s face, it’s clear he’s just said something that requires a response.
So Carly takes a breath and almost speaks her mind, before thinking better of it and sighing instead. A moment later, she tries again. And sighs again. Then, gathering her wits because something is clearly expected of her and she’s not one to shrink from a challenge, she manages a more determined intake of breath—only to have it result in a third sigh. By the time there’s a fourth—a faint exhalation infused with a lifetime’s worth of ambivalence and frustration—you may well feel you know this woman.
And in a way, you do. Carly’s an archetype—the stay-at-home, suburban cul-de-sac hausfrau who rises early in the morning to put on makeup before her hubby can see her, cooks five-star cuisine with whatever she finds at the farmer’s market, keeps her spotless house tastefully furnished, caters to her active (and neglectful) family’s every whim, and asks nothing more in return than that her children and husband be happy.
Asks nothing more aloud, that is. She’d actually like them to make her proud. And therein lies her frustration, because they are not—not one of them—doing that. Chad (puppyish Anthony Bowden) has just this minute come out of the closet, his older brother (conflicted but commonsensical Christopher McFarland) has emerged from law school to manage a pizza joint, and Carly’s husband (a resolutely detached Wayne Duvall) is so airily distant she can barely get him to see her anymore. Small wonder that when one of her Autrey Mill neighbors phones, she takes the call in her walk-in closet, where she can gossip while surrounded by the possessions that reassure her of her worth.
There is one thing she’s proud of: the garish floral arrangement that’s just won her a neighborhood contest. It’s sitting on her kitchen counter, a talisman of grace, order, and security in a life she’s holding fiercely under control. If it goes—and you sense even early on that it might—her world will lie in ruins.
Colaizzo, whose Really Really was a hit at Signature Theatre last year, has given this latest play the structure and rhythms of a Neil Simon comedy, then laced its content with complications—racism, bulimia, incest—that Simon would never countenance. Knowing this is not an entirely comfortable mix, director Michael Kahn opts to keep the talk brisk and the cast in motion whether they’re stocking Carly’s kitchen with groceries, pissing drunkenly on her couch, or rushing to the bathroom to bandage injuries. If his world-premiere staging can’t always make the family’s behavior make sense, it can at least give it an air of plausibility.
In the sort of domestic situation-dramedy that’s long been a Woolly Mammoth specialty—one that invites over-the-top performances and turns metaphorical in its final act—this might all hang together. But Colaizzo’s going for a more naturalistic buzz, and by the time the cast is punching holes in designer James Noone’s tastefully appointed walls, the characters mostly just seem to be overplaying the dyspeptic hands they’ve been dealt.
Lahti, though, keeps Carly centered, even as she’s defiantly dumping Rice Krispies and coffee on her polished floors to make a point. Her eyes may brim, her smile falter, but this woman is a survivor.