Any industry agent scouting Theater Row for hot properties and fresh talent will come up empty at “Family Dinner.” Scribe Michele Willens painstakingly dissects a middle-class family at two chronological stages of its dysfunctional history — sitting pretty but looking stupid in Santa Monica in 1963, and looking crushed but wising up in the post-9/11 world of New York City in 2002. Despite the time travel, the deadly family dynamic is predictable in both chapters. And for all the bombastic efforts of an amateurish cast, most of the characters in this misbegotten production are dead meat.
Instead of humanizing the stereotypical members of the Wells family — consisting of a dictatorial dad, a doormat mom and their three cookie-cut teenage offspring — helmer Jamibeth Margolis plays right into the cliches. The over-designed, too-brightly lighted set of a comfortable home looks like a cartoon, and the stiff-as-a-board acting confirms the sense of unreality.
The domestic troubles of this seemingly perfect family are screamingly obvious, given that Willens is unfairly observing them from a contemporary perspective. Summing them up best is the fact that Howard Wells (William Broderick), a garment manufacturer and the tyrannical head of the household, is poised to make a killing on crinoline petticoats — just as the miniskirts of the free-spirited ’60s are about to come into vogue.
Forty years on, in act two, the Wells family is no less a cartoon and the acting is just as stiff as it was when they were all young and stupid. (Going for consistency here, their New York apartment is every bit as awkwardly designed as the old homestead in Santa Monica.)
Change is something that comes hard to this family. Although big bad Daddy is long dead, mother Jane (Mary Ellen Ashley) is still in deep denial about his pernicious influence on his offspring. And while daughter Maggie (Nancy Nagrant) and brothers Johnny (Broderick) and Alex (Patrick Riviere) may be all grown up, they are still nursing their childish hurts.
The only thing about these siblings that has truly matured is their collective bitterness over their father’s domination and their mother’s refusal to stand up to him. At this point, Willens is working herself up to the Big Moment when someone finally stops blaming the parents and takes some personal responsibility. But after 40 years of incessant whining and bad acting, the moment is woefully anticlimactic.