'Family Week'

It produces an embarrassingly amateurish muddle.

Is “Family Week” named for its perceived running time? On paper, it must have looked like a great idea: Combine the talents of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Beth Henley and Oscar-winning helmer Jonathan Demme for a dysfunctional family drama. In execution, it produces an embarrassingly amateurish muddle with four actors working much harder than they should have to. Rosemarie DeWitt, who starred in Demme’s justly praised “Rachel Getting Married,” takes the lead alongside stage eminence Kathleen Chalfant, but even with the two desperately trying to give their characters a little depth, sketchy writing and baffling direction torpedo the 75-minute play.

The script feels like deleted scenes from “Rachel” — like Anne Hathaway’s character at the beginning of that film, DeWitt’s Claire is confined to a rehab center where she’s getting treatment for her various family-related emotional problems. Her dead son — murdered along with one of his friends — seems to be the main source of these, but her mother Lena (Chalfant) certainly runs a close second.

It’s family visitation week here at The Pastures, so Lena, Claire’s daugther Kay (Sami Gayle, who appears to be in a different play), and her sister Rickey (Quincey Tyler Bernstine) arrive to show their support, but mostly end up airing a lot of dirty laundry.

For all the recriminations in this play, too much goes unanswered. Why, for example, has Demme chosen to cast a black actress (the gratifyingly confident Bernstine) as a member of a white family when the script never once mentions adoption? Are we to believe that a family so worm-eaten with guilt and bitterness has no race issues or even adoption issues?

While we’re at it, why doesn’t the play’s child-custody-battle subplot ever get resolved? Why has Demme staged what appears to be the play’s turning point as a wacky dream sequence? Why does he direct Chalfant to perform an entire scene with her back to the audience?

This is Demme’s first stage outing, so it’s surprising that he had nobody on hand to help him with blocking problems. Derek McLane’s smart set is underused; too much is made of Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s pop-song-heavy sound design. Granted, there’s not much to Henley’s script, but a more accomplished stage director might have salvaged the mother-daughter conflict at its heart. As it is, the production plays like an act from “August: Osage County” on institutional tranquilizers.

Family Week

Lucille Lortel; 298 seats; $65 top

Production

An MCC Theater Presentation in association with Marc Platt by special arrangement with the Lucille Lortel Foundation of a play in one act by Beth Henley. Directed by Jonathan Demme.

Creative

Set, Derek McLane; costumes, Mimi O'Donnell; lighting, Kenneth Posner; sound, Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; original music, Dan Bern; production stage manager, Lisa Porter. Opened May 4, 2010. Reviewed May 1. Running time: 1 HOUR, 15 MIN.

Cast

Rickey - Quincey Tyler Bernstine Lena - Kathleen Chalfant Claire - Rosemarie DeWitt Kay - Sami Gayle
With: Daisy J. Oliver, Paul T. Ridgely.
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