The expectant silence you hear at the John Houseman Theater these days is the vacant sound of an audience primed to laugh and finding little to inspire them. Hopes are raised by the name of the playwright, Paul Weitz, best known as co-director of grossout comedy "American Pie," and an Oscar nominee for his screenplay for "About a Boy." Guffaws, grossout or otherwise, are few in "Roulette," an aimless, rather wan comedy about a white-collar family slowly disintegrating in the suburbs.
The expectant silence you hear at the John Houseman Theater these days is the vacant sound of an audience primed to laugh and finding little to inspire them. The hopes are raised by the name of the playwright, Paul Weitz, best known as co-director of grossout comedy “American Pie,” and an Oscar nominee for his screenplay for “About a Boy.” He should know from funny, right? But guffaws, grossout or otherwise, are few in “Roulette,” an aimless, rather wan comedy about a white-collar family slowly disintegrating in the suburbs.The play’s opening moments are striking, and amusing in a macabre manner. Crisply dressed middle-aged Jon (Larry Bryggman) sits down to breakfast in his handsomely appointed home, takes a glance at the newspaper, then pulls a gun out of his briefcase. He next retrieves a bullet from his wallet, places it in the gun’s chamber, gives it a spin, places the gun to his temple and — click! — pulls the trigger. Finding himself still alive, he benignly smiles and puts the gun away before heading off to the city for another day at the office. His motives for this striking morning ritual emerge — sort of — as Jon’s family comes onstage to go about their own daily business. Daughter Jenny (Anna Paquin), a sullen college student with a gothic personality, trades desultory insults with her brother, Jock (Shawn Hatosy), a beefy but insecure fellow obsessed with exercise. Their mother, the gently distracted Enid (Leslie Lyles), pays host to a visit from their nerdy nut of a neighbor, Virginia (Ana Gasteyer), who has been sent for a glass of milk. Despite the startling opening, we seem to be primed for a standard-issue sitcom about a pair of exasperated parents surrounded by kooky or cranky kids, friends and neighbors. And some silly shenanigans involving that glass of milk — and the revelation that Enid is conducting an affair with Virginia’s husband, Steve (Mark Setlock) — suggest that farce may be on the menu, too. And yet the laughs never materialize, as Weitz’s alternately limp and labored dialogue ambles along vaguely without sharpening into anything resembling real comedy. Seemingly surefire comic scenes — as when Jenny stumbles upon her baby-doll-nightie-clad mother preparing for a tryst with Steve — lurch forward awkwardly. Most have little or no payoff. A less sluggish pace from director Trip Cullman wouldn’t hurt, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of real humor to unearth here. The characters aren’t outrageous enough to qualify as satirical portraits, and yet they aren’t fully imagined human beings either, so their frustrations and failings hardly inspire the poignance Weitz seems to be aiming for, particularly in the second act. Bryggman, an actor of immense charm, brings an easygoing grace to his perf as the betrayed husband. Jon’s placid admission, to a semi-hysterical Virginia, that he’s fully aware of his wife’s affair with her husband, is hilariously bland. Bryggman is even more appealing in the second act, giving the play a lift with his blithe, insouciant impersonation of a man happy to have gone over the edge. After a somewhat more successful — or unsuccessful? — round of Russian roulette, Jon has been transformed from a hard-working if harassed businessman to a lovable maniac. He has just returned from eight months in the loony bin, but it’s clear from his happy-go-lucky disorientation that he’s not exactly firing on all cylinders. He seems to think his home is a Vegas hotel, and he keeps trying to tip his wife. His family, alternately exasperated and appalled, tries to clue him in to the truth, to little effect. Here too, the cast strains mightily to keep the play’s engine from stalling, and its new, pseudo-whimsical tone from going stale. As Virginia, Gasteyer has a goofy, pathologically self-effacing manner that’s appealing. When Jon tenders an offer of marriage, the flummoxed but flattered Virginia gently explains why it’s not such a good idea: “We’re both married to other people, and you have cognitive problems, and I’m becoming a nun.” Lyles, Hatosy and Setlock are all accomplished comic actors who acquit themselves with brisk professionalism, to remarkably little effect; the young film actress Paquin seems ill at ease, however, and tends to rush her dialogue or swallow it, obliterating any comic potential it might have. The production had to postpone its opening when Grant Shaud, originally cast as the philandering husband, became ill and had to leave the cast. Perhaps the vague sense of uncertainty that marks the production is in part attributable to this setback. But jitters cannot be entirely to blame for the play’s ineffectiveness. At bottom, Weitz’s examination of that comedy favorite, the modern American dysfunctional family, is itself dysfunctional.