Actor-playwright Zoe Kazan (“A Behanding in Spokane”) sets the stage for a tense family drama in “We Live Here” when a gifted Juilliard student brings an unsuitable boyfriend home for her older sister’s wedding. But despite some artful dodging by helmer Sam Gold, events never get past the foreplay stage, putting some very capable performers in the awkward position of having to look busy while spinning in place. From the looks of it, Manhattan Theater Club jumped the gun by mounting a mainstage production of this commissioned piece before it was in shape to come out of workshop.
The handsome set that John Lee Beatty has designed for a family of academics living in a New England college town is so warm and inviting it’s hard to believe that anyone who grew up in this homey environment would suffer much of a family tragedy.
It’s that tragedy that no one will talk about, but hangs heavily in the air until the Big Reveal in the final scene. By that time, it’s far too late to put this intelligence to any practical dramatic use. The disclosure does, however, satisfy what seems to be the scribe’s primary objective of explaining why her heroine is such a sourpuss.
Jessica Collins (“Rubicon”) bravely refuses to play bride-to-be Althea Bateman for sympathy, meaning the thesp makes no excuses for her character’s moody behavior. Everyone else does, though, including Althea’s high-strung mother, Maggie (the ever-charming Amy Irving), her doting father, Lawrence (Mark Blum, dependably solid), and her adoring fiance, Sandy (Jeremy Shamos, the go-to actor for sweet-guy roles).
The one exception is Althea’s younger sister, Dinah (Betty Gilpin, so self-contained she’s almost scary). Dinah is the family genius, a gifted composer coming into her own at Julliard — but so naive she thinks it’s okay to bring her new boyfriend, Daniel (Oscar Isaac), to the wedding.
As one of Dinah’s Julliard instructors, 30-year-old Daniel does seem to be unsuitable boyfriend material for the 19-year-old student. But what makes the situation really awkward is his link to that tragedy no one will discuss.
Still, a volatile situation does not a drama make, and Kazan seems unwilling to engage her characters in sustained dramatic conflicts. Instead of sending them into battle, she allows them to retreat behind torrents of evasive small talk and distracting stage business.
As the mother of this hectic household, Maggie is given the most inane things to say and the most dubious chores (like opening the wedding presents) to perform. But each character is assigned some physical task (like painting a portrait) or conversational ploy (like holding forth on a point of Aristotelian philosophy) for avoiding an emotional showdown. Finally, after everyone is thoroughly exhausted from all that ducking and weaving, Kazan pulls a deus ex machina to put them out of their misery.
Somewhere, the gods of dramaturgy are weeping.