Make no mistake, despite the casting of Dawn French, the self-styled “spherical half of comedy duo French & Saunders,” sibling rivalry, not revelry, underpins Carmel Morgan’s debut play, “Smaller.” Trouble is, French and Alison Moyet’s less-than-devoted sisters are stuck in a “Sleepless in Seattle”-style scenario, with their inevitable meeting happening only in the play’s final scenes. And inevitability is the enemy of surprising drama.
French plays dependable Bernice who teaches by day and has, for 25 years, spent the rest of her life at home caring for her widowed, wheelchair-using mother, Maureen (June Watson). Sister Cath, meanwhile, is forever absent, having skedaddled as fast as her legs would carry her into a minor career in musical theater.
Now holed up as one of the Henoritas, a bunch of entertainers in a cheap Spanish holiday resort, Cath sings songs placed between scenes of vexed family relations back home. One doesn’t need a degree in subtext to spot that the oft-repeated line “Go home!” from her opening number is a hint that Cath really does intend to come home.
There’s no doubting the sincerity of Morgan’s dissection of family ties; equally, however, there’s no getting away from the fact that the majority of the evening sits in a state of repeated compare-and-contrast. Bernice lifts, cares for, feeds, is frustrated by and loves the prattling Maureen. Cath sends cards. Bernice’s life is on hold for her mother. Cath appears to be too busy living hers.
Long-suffering to the point of near-permanent exasperation, Bernice has adopted a fall-back position of irony to cope with her mother’s physical and mental demands. Her tone is not lost on Maureen, who, in a rare moment that indicates she has actually been listening, tartly observes, “When you’ve finished with your sarcasm you can open the post.”
Thanks to an alternately querulous and steely perf from Watson, Maureen ricochets between understandable self-obsession — she’s in pain most of the time — and moments of touching understanding: “I’m no picnic, am I?”
Bernice self-deprecatingly bats that line away, not to mention her mother’s half-threatening suggestion that she be put into a home, both of which are all-too-obviously agenda items for the longed-for faceoff. But when the confrontation finally comes, Morgan fluffs it. The emotions of the climactic bedside scene and the subsequent fight fail to register, partly for production reasons.
Moyet has one of the most powerful and idiosyncratic singing voices in U.K. pop history, and her medley of Robbie Williams numbers while dressed as a chicken is very funny. Elsewhere, sad to say, her dramatically inert songs do little more than display self-pity, while her acting range is largely confined to sullen or skeptical. And no one is helped by Kathy Burke’s unusually slack direction, which fails to focus or shape the action.
Jonathan Fensom’s revolve set answers the problem of switching locations, but in so cumbersome a way that any energy from a scene disappears during scene changes.
Burke, however, has a problem on her hands not with Morgan’s ambition but her dialogue. She runs to good gags, which the expert French delivers with a pleasingly bitter zing, but otherwise everyone speaks in the dully over-explanatory language of the TV soaps in which Morgan has built her reputation.
Onstage, without the controlling power of an individually framed shot, words have to resonate to charge up the space. Theater audiences feed on suggestion, things unspoken, the subtext that engages you to a play’s ideas. Stating ideas and regrets is not the same as dramatizing them.
The theme of daughters’ divergent lives has powered plays as different as Simon Mendes da Costa’s comedy “Losing Louis” — arriving at Manhattan Theater Club this fall — and Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece “Top Girls.” Lacking the chops to be either as funny as the former or as trenchant as the latter, Morgan plays it safe. She presents difficult subject matter but is scared of going too deeply into it and possibly losing her audience. Ironically, by refusing to pull punches, she could have delivered stronger drama and won a stronger response.