Twenty-five years after hitting the mother lode with Pulitzer winner “Crimes of the Heart,” playwright Beth Henley is still mining the same vein of Southern Gothic and family dysfunction in “Ridiculous Fraud,” receiving its West Coast premiere at South Coast Rep. Her claim, however, may be tapped out. While the earlier play remains a tight, confident gem, the latest is an inchoate muddle.
Dramedy details a year in the life of eight members and hangers-on of the bonkers Clay clan — nine, if you count the absent patriarch whose incarceration for fraud sends the others into their downward spiral.
Uptight son Andrew (Matt McGrath) is juggling a reputation-restoring race for state auditor with efforts to keep spoiled wife Willow (Betsy Brandt) and slacker brother Kap (Matt Letscher) in line. But that’s only the tip of the family iceberg.
Uncle Baites (Randy Oglesby) has a second-childhood fixation on one-legged flower child Georgia (Eliza Pryor). Willow’s widowed dad (Paul Vincent O’Connor) has infuriated his daughter by wedding his late wife’s nurse (Nike Doukas), whose cancer prognosis is grim. Goofy youngest son Lafcad (Ian Fraser) has cold feet about marrying an heiress whose fortune could change that of the family. And all of that is just scene one.
Just as “Crimes” was openly inspired by “Three Sisters,” Henley here attempts an even more ambitious Chekhovian homage of star-crossed lovers and melancholy in the manner of a backwoods “Uncle Vanya.” Her theme is the self-destructiveness of willful folly, and she does possess a knack for creating, in the Chekhovian style, characters aware of everyone else’s foibles but blind to their own.
Crucial difference is that Chekhov’s people are both likable and understandable, while those of “Ridiculous Fraud” are arrant poseurs and fakes, whose motives for a roundelay of love affairs, beaux gestes and reversals are hinted at dimly, if at all. An escalating series of outrageous behaviors and plot twists seems contrived and arbitrary, rather than organic to the action. The four scenes, each corresponding to a different season, play like four unrelated one-acts, never blending into a coherent whole.
Belief in this production’s family relationships is even harder to come by than belief in its machinations of plot. Lafcad’s claim that in this family, “We’re all so separate” couldn’t be truer; supposed shared bloodline is more fanciful than real. Henley’s habit of assigning to a speaker exposition of which the listener would already be aware makes it even harder to credit these people with intimate knowledge of each other.
Helmer Sharon Ott has pitched cast’s vocal energy, especially that of McGrath, at such a high level that all their punches are thrown in the first 10 minutes. Only Doukas and Letscher display any consistent ease of delivery, so their few scenes together — along with a donnybrook among the brothers that seems unmotivated but at least is funny and well staged by Martin Noyes — are show’s high points. Too-heavy cornpone accents and sing-song line readings make this evening a long slog indeed.
Hugh Landwehr’s sets capture a pre-Katrina New Orleans of wittily detailed interiors and moody bayou clearings, complemented by Peter Maradudin’s subtle lighting. But the richness of production’s visual score mostly serves to bring out the vacancy of the play that inhabits it.