As dysfunctional dads go, it's hard to top one who whistles while making his morning coffee, then sits down with the newspaper, puts a gun to his head, and pulls the trigger. He chuckles at the click -- no bullet in the chamber this time -- and amiably heads off to work.
A fast round of Russian roulette is a bracing beginning for any play, but in this instance, the script doesn't live up to its first couple minutes. Roulette by Paul Weitz, now at the Bang and the Clatter Theatre in Akron, is too often a predictable and plodding cruise through the familiar geography of contemporary anomie, complete with an alcoholic mom, two misfit teenagers, and a wacky neighbor couple.
The playwright -- co-director with his brother Chris of the popular flicks American Pie and About a Boy -- tries to plumb the depths of family malaise and ultimate redemption. But his frequently clever writing is stuck in second gear, never really advancing beyond basic sitcom competence. And that's too bad, because director Sean McConaha and the B&C players work valiantly to save this material from itself.
The father, Jon, is your typical distant suburban dad, who shares a split-level with his gin-and-tonic-slurping wife, Enid, and two stereotypes, er, teenage kids with problems. Son Jock is a pile of unfocused testosterone who prefers resolving issues with his fists, and his sister Jenny is a mash-up of goth attitude and valley-girl fashion who's into booze, drugs, and smart-ass comebacks.
Their lives of not-so-quiet desperation are further rankled by the folks across the street. Steve is having an affair with Enid (much to the disgust of her children), while his wife Virginia is happily addled, laughing at jokes she doesn't understand, filching furtive sips of milk from Enid's half-gallon, and stressing about her wandering hubby.
The first act ends with Jon inviting the neighbors over for dinner. Steve and Virginia get blotto before the grub hits the table and then adjourn to the bathroom for a very audible quickie. As confusing as this incident is, given the couple's supposed rift, it can't hold a candle to Jon's decision to bring out his gun and end it all in front of family and friends.
As it turns out after intermission, Jon just blew away part of his cranial matter, and after seven months in rehab, he's back home. But now he doesn't know who he is, morphing from waiter to casino guest to insurance agent as fast as you can say "contrived comic premise." At this point -- and for the remainder of the overlong second act -- the other characters are left to flounder, since the central character has gone AWOL.
If any company could properly assemble this kludge, it's the talented crew at Bang and Clatter. But this show was scheduled at the last minute, when another production had to be axed, and the rough edges are there in abundance. Director McConaha has decided to stage it all on a small kitchen set, with the downstage dinette table doubling as Jon's desk at work. This claustrophobic space doesn't provide enough room for the play to breathe -- especially since the playwright wants to harness the energy of farce, with the six characters making frequent entrances and exits.
These offstage comings and goings are accompanied by what sounds like a metal staircase unit, which groans with each footstep and distracts from the activity onstage. Combine that with audience seating that's almost on top of the dining table, cramping all moves in that area, and the actors have some sizable physical obstacles to overcome.
Still, the cast performs with great pluck, if not unerring precision. In the central role of Jon, Ralph Cooley is nicely understated and seems to fully enjoy his rootless act-two character. Dede Klein's Enid is a starchy cul-de-sac queen, certain of her passion for Steve and her cocktails early on, but then equally devoted to the care and feeding of her damaged husband after his self-imposed injury. Ryan McMullen, after playing hilariously limp-wristed fellows in recent B&C productions, is convincing as the tough-guy Jock. But Nicole Davies as Jenny is inconsistent, managing some nice verbal back talk, but overplaying a supposed high she gets from snorting some of Dad's pulverized pills.
Playing the neighbors Steve and Virginia, Tony Weaver and Margaret Morris often hit the right chords. But their control is shaky, and at times they seem to be simply acting emotions rather than pursuing their characters' through lines.
Clearly, playwright Weitz wants the frenzied second act to end with a family somehow reunited by its concern for brain-scrambled dad. But it is an excruciatingly long buildup to the last line that sums it all up. Trouble is, interest wanes long before we get there.