'Auctioning the Ainsleys'

Belabors a gimmicky premise that contracts as the play strains to become more emotionally expansive.

Using a Midwestern auctioneering clan’s relationship with objects as a rather precious metaphor for familial dysfunction, Laura Schellhardt’s “Auctioning the Ainsleys” belabors a gimmicky premise that contracts as the play strains to become more emotionally expansive. This latest by the writer of “The K of D” and “Courting Vampires” sports some funny lines and deft performance moments in Meredith McDonough’s TheatreWorks premiere production. But its comic absurdism and stabs at deeper emotional resonance are largely undone by a case of the authorial cutes.

The Ainsleys run an auction house that is also a home, though the family members don’t cohabit so much as coexist. For 15 years, matriarch Alice (Diane Dorsey) has stayed sequestered upstairs, communicating with her grown children only by intercom, her needs fulfilled by a series of helpers hired from a mysterious agency. Yet the family business rolls on, with every member employing their own bizarre “system for managing the chaos.”

Eccentric spinster Annalee (Molly Anne Coogan), who handles the books in long-dead Dad’s old office, has a crazy filing method whose incomprehensibility to anyone else is her way of staying irreplaceable. Barbie-like Amelia (Jessica Lynn Carroll) plays matchmaker to miscellaneous items in auction lots, romanticizing and obsessing over how such piles reveal their owners’ personalities — though fears that her (never-seen) husband might bolt suggest she’s aware these pursuits might be more harmful than helpful.

Lone son Aiden (Liam Vincent) is charged with the restoration and “destoration” (occasional distressing/antiquing) of auction items. It’s a duty he performs with fanatical devotion — albeit only to get the things the hell out of his environment. For while the others claim, “We don’t sell objects, we sell lives” (or rather their accumulated, well-used material evidence), Aiden bluntly proclaims, “We sell dead people’s junk,” and as such are enablers of people’s thirst for meaningless clutter.

The arrival of Alice’s latest helper, Arthur (Lance Gardner), who’s charged with writing down all the object-associated familial memories that are disappearing from her terminally ailing mind, introduces change to this static household of isolated and embittered individuals.

Schellhardt aims for a mixture of cartoonish lunacy, pathos and rage a la Christopher Durang and Nicky Silver’s grotesque family eviscerations. But “Auctioning” too often feels tame and overeager to please, in love with cutely repetitious verbal gags that roll back around as predictably as the various interiors in Annie Smart’s rotating house set.

The actors and dialogue have their moments, but for the most part these characters are too one-dimensionally annoying to be funny, let alone for us to feel their pain. A major exception is Vincent’s ultra-uptight gay Aiden, not because the part (or its rote romantic development with Arthur) is better written, but because this veteran Bay Area actor can punch across just about any barb as if it were the apex of wit.

Auctioning the Ainsleys

Lucie Stern Theater, Palo Alto, Calif.; 425 seats; $67 top


A TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presentation of a play in two acts by Laura Schellhardt. Directed by Meredith McDonough.


Set, costumes, Annie Smart; lighting, Paul Toben; composer/sound designer, Cliff Caruthers; dramaturg, Vickie Rozell; production stage manager, Jaimie L. Johnson; casting, Leslie Martinson, Lynn Baber. Opened, reviewed July 17, 2010. Running time: 2 HOURS, 15 MIN.


Alice Ainsley - Diane Dorsey Avery Ainsley - Heidi Kettenring Annalee Ainsley - Molly Anne Coogan Amelia Ainsley - Jessica Lynn Carroll Aiden Ainsley - Liam Vincent Arthur - Lance Gardner
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