Graceland” offers a snappy rebuttal to all those dreary dramas about how kinfolk tear into one another when someone in the family dies. As scribe Ellen Fairey puts it, with bracing wit and stylistic delicacy, a father’s suicide is more likely to lead his grief-stricken children into the kind of reckless behavior, sexual and otherwise, that can only end in more grief — or a great deal of comic embarrassment. A nice find from LCT3, the developmental arm of Lincoln Center Theater that has taken such care to give it a top-drawer production, this one could go places.
Paige Evans, the director of the newish production initiative at LCT — the Gotham nonprofit that also this season presented “In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play” by Sarah Ruhl, and Andrew Bovell’s “When the Rain Stops Falling” — is obviously good at picking the goods. Fairey, a Chi scribe (“Girl 20”) who makes her Gotham debut here, is the right kind of playwright to pluck from the heap: someone who has something to say, says it well and can leave a fussy subscription aud feeling satisfied.
Chicago looks swell in Robin Vest’s multipurpose set. That wraparound strip of green flooring (nicely set off by Aaron Rhyne’s bucolic video projections and soundman Bart Fasbender’s establishing bird twitter) represents Graceland, the picturesque cemetery where an old boozer who staggered home from his favorite bar one night and shot himself in the head has just been laid to rest.
Sam (Matt McGrath), who delivers fruit arrangements for a living, and Sara Caruso (Marin Hinkle), who manages a gourmet cookware store in Manhattan, entertain us at the gravesite with some funny sibling squabbling. But their hearts aren’t really in it; and by heading off to their father’s local bar, Sam and Sara tacitly acknowledge that they’d like to learn more about the father from whom they’d grown estranged.
Scenes shift fluidly under helmer Henry Wishcamper’s light touch, which respects the slightly surreal nature of Fairey’s narrative style. It’s a pity that we don’t get to see the inside of Deacon’s Bar or to attend the wake at Gene Marciniak’s home. Being one of those subtle scribes who prefers to write around the edges of her story, Fairey instead takes us home with Joe (Brian Kerwin), the drinking buddy Sara picks up at Deacon’s, and back to Graceland, where Sam runs into Sam’s 15-year-old son, Miles (David Gelles Hurwitz), who works maintenance at the cemetery.
Scribe’s objective is clear enough — to reveal things about their dead dad that may explain why his children are the way they are and how their father’s death may give them a new lease on their own lives. But she goes about it in a dramatically oblique, wryly comic manner that keeps an audience on its mental toes.
The technique works because it’s the characters, not the changing situations, that drive events. And these flaky, unpredictable characters are wonderfully watchable in this fine ensemble production.
Sara grabs ears and eyeballs with her extravagantly promiscuous behavior and strategically internalized pain. In a raving beauty of a performance, Hinkle (“Two and a Half Men”) plays her like some lovely, complicated instrument that looks strong but could easily break.
Brittle on the outside but hurting underneath, Sara is the kind of sophisticate who pushes people away by jumping into bed with them. Here, she snags both Joe, an endearing old hound dog in Kerwin’s good-natured perf, and son Miles, so alarmingly intelligent and fiercely funny in Hurwitz’s terrific perf that he almost walks off with the show.
Grief does funny things to people, Fairey wants us to know. And just because they make us laugh, doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting bad — or healing themselves with that laughter.