“Family Week” boasts many stinging moments that remind us of this playwright’s disarming ability to wring laughs from the darkest corners of experience, usually the dysfunctional family dynamic. And there is indeed a certain amount of gallows humor to be found in depicting the empty platitudes and cruel exercises proffered at treatment centers as cures for all psychological ailments.
But Henley’s writing is so sour and monotonous here that the laughs soon wither in your throat. The play is pathologically unpleasant — Henley has scrupulously covered every corner of this family portrait with ghoulish details, and eventually it ceases to have any discernible relation to real human experience, from which all authentic comedy must spring. One could also argue that it’s too easy, and somewhat tasteless, to sneer at programs that, whatever their intellectual limitations, have unquestionably been of use to many unhappy people.
The production has been designed to accurately replicate the sterile, joyless environment of an institution. John Arnone’s ugly set consists of generic furniture scattered awkwardly against a forest-green backdrop, and Paul Gallo’s lighting is unflinchingly harsh for the scenes set in the Pastures Center. With the exception of Kane, always a lively presence with her natural quirks and little-girl-lost persona, the cast seems strait-jacketed by the darkness of Henley’s vision.
Played with a loopy, ferocious edge, with no attempt to milk pathos from the material, “Family Week” might at least succeed as a searing, Christopher Durang-style satire. But Ulu Grosbard’s direction has a somber, treacly tone that suggests we’re meant to be laughing through tears.
Nobody’s laughing anymore — the play closed April 16, after just eight perfs.