The writings of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, the towering triumvirate of mid-20th century American drama, hang with a purposeful self-consciousness over George Furth’s “Precious Sons,” which is receiving its long-delayed West Coast debut courtesy of director Daniel Henning and the Blank Theatre Co. It’s a capable mounting of an intriguing work, but neither the production nor the play ever quite finds its voice. Wanting to comment with dark humor on its midwestern subjects while also achieving the devastating poignancy of its predecessors, this piece gets lost somewhere in between irony and pathos.
Set in 1949 — not coincidentally the same year “Death of a Salesman” premiered — “Precious Sons” invites the audience into the home of the Small family, which in addition to a diminutive surname, shares the Loman family’s make-up: father, mother and two very different sons. In a fluidly staged opening scene, with the tone of a ’50s sitcom, Henning establishes a veneer of normalcy, love and innocence, but it doesn’t take long for that to peel away.
Father might know best, but he has a pretty vulgar mouth — “That ass,” Fred (Gregory Jbara) says to his wife Bea (Nora Dunn), “acres and acres and it’s all mine” — and is as prone to hitting his bookish youngest son, Freddy (Adam Wylie), as he is to lavish displays of pride and affection.
Dunn plays the put-upon and apparently superpatient wife with aplomb, allowing her husband’s insults to roll off of her, and revealing with a certain glee that she’s gotten Fred, Freddy, and athletic older son Artie (Michael Malota) all ready on time by setting the clocks ahead a half-hour. She’s the rock of this family, the one who keeps it functioning, and early on, there’s certainly a sense that this is a genuine depiction of an all-American family, warts and all.
As the play proceeds, though, the work gets darker and darker. Battle lines get drawn, and the precious sons, especially 14-year-old Freddy, provide the battleground. Fred, who went to work as a teenager and has labored his way to a bleeding ulcer, is insistent that his kids focus on getting an education.
He’s lined up a place for Freddy at the University of Chicago lab school, but Bea has other plans. Freddy has had a successful acting career since he was young, and has been offered a small role in the touring company of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” We even see mother and son rehearse a brief scene. For reasons that involve both financial practicalities and a deep well of narcissism, Bea wants Freddy to take the part.
The power struggle between Bea and Fred heats up in the second act, which strives for the explosive and emotionally potent. But even as it does so, it becomes apparent that Henning’s early choices went too far. The actors played so hard for laughs, and the opening scenes were so clearly stylized, that now it becomes difficult to go as far as necessary in the other direction.
Jbara, as Fred, is successful to a large degree, achieving a significant degree of poignancy in this role that combines Willy Loman, Stanley Kowalski and James Tyrone, and yet is a more emasculated figure than any of them.
Dunn brings the comic sharpness she displayed on “Saturday Night Live” to her portrayal of the secretly dominant Bea. But her dramatic moments, which are ultimately the spine of the work, just don’t have weight.
There are two reasons for this: One is the fact that Dunn carries with her an expectation of comedy — the audience always waits for the punchline.
The second factor is that even though the two lead performances here establish the characters effectively, at this point in the run there’s little chemistry between Jbara and Dunn. These are characters who know each other so well that they can injure deeply with just a few, well-chosen words, but this relationship, driven both by neediness and hatred, feels too superficial throughout.
As Freddy, Wylie is a bit miscast (the idea of his playing that role in “Streetcar” is a little silly) and a touch physically uncomfortable, but his scenes with Dunn and Jbara all work properly, and he certainly captures the character’s brooding sensitivity.
Malota, as Artie, is an appropriate foil to Wylie — extroverted, even a little clownish, and very much his father’s son. Ginger Williams is excellent in the small part of Artie’s girlfriend Sandra. The play livens up whenever she enters, although again the comedy can get a bit too broad for its own good.
The timing of this staging highlights its weaknesses. Perhaps before last year’s film, “American Beauty,” it might have been possible to conclude that what Furth and Henning are shooting for, that elusive mix of tragedy and biting satire, is just too ambitious. But that can’t be said anymore. Still, it’s an extremely difficult note to hit, and “Precious Sons” manages some strong chords even though overall it’s a bit flat.