A contentious family grappling with a matriarch’s dementia over the Christmas holiday might not seem an obvious template for humor, but in “Dot,” playwright Colman Domingo sees the absurdity and the human comedy in the messy, volatile, all-too-real family dynamic. Though the show, premiering at Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theater, occasionally veers to the maudlin, there’s much authentic emotion and comfort in this loss-of-memory tale. Problem is, the playwrights stuffs his overlong play with enough plotting, themes and mid-life crises for multiple works, and the usually savvy helmer Susan Stroman mis-dials the acting to an unvarying degree.
In this companion piece to Domingo’s autobiographical “A Boy and His Soul” and “Wild With Happy,” something is a little off about Dotty, the wide-eyed, feisty matriarch of a black, middle-class West Philadelphia family. At first it appears her adult daughter, lawyer Shelly (Sharon Washington), is over-reacting to anything her mother says or does, but it soon becomes clear that there’s a good reason for her stressed-out behavior: Though at times lucid and wickedly funny — she compares her daughter’s new hairstyle to “a mean pineapple” – Dotty shows increasing signs of Alzheimer’s.
Adding stress are Shelly’s siblings, who are too self-involved in their own lives to accept what is happening and help their sister share the burden of dealing with their quickly-declining, widowed mother.
Shelly is at a near-hysterical level even before once-golden-boy brother Donnie (Stephen Conrad Moore, solid) and husband Adam (Colin Hanlon, the likable in-law) arrive for a holiday visit from New York City. It’s hard to focus on mom when the men are having marital issues of intimacy and choice (Donnie wants to settle down with kids; Adam wants to stay young, free and slim), not to mention edgy from being on the last days of a juice cleanse.
Younger sister Averie (Libya V. Puch), whose diva personality overwhelms any room she’s in, is struggling to regain her celebrity after fleeting YouTube stardom. Meanwhile, neighborhood friend Jackie (Finnerty Steeves, very funny in her state of quiet desperation) has gotten pregnant at 40 by a married man. Leaving her job in a panic, she find herself in the old neighborhood at her own personal crossroad.
Giving the house some sense of normalcy is Dotty’s home-care provider Fidel (Michael Rosen, in a lovely, understated performance), a sweet soul from Kazakhstan who seems the only one to understand and empathize with Dotty.
Stroman — who directed Domingo in “The Scottsboro Boys,” which also began at the Vineyard — helms with a bright broadness that punches the laughs but sometimes brings the work to a sitcom level. Only when the production takes a breather from the fraught storylines does the play find its focus, and its heart.
A scene between Fidel and Dotty, where the mother confides her fears, is presented simply and truthfully. And a moment where an old song gives Dotty a wondrous sense of escape — when Adam lovingly steps in as her imagined dead husband and we glimpse Dotty in her younger glory — is exquisite, tapping into Stroman’s musical staging gifts.
Johnson brings nuance and clarity to her role as Dotty struggles between two worlds drifting further and further apart, with a defiant intent to keep as many pieces of her family’s life connected as long as possible.
But as the character who has to quickly come to terms with life on many levels, it’s really Shelly’s play. Washington is at times unnervingly brittle in her efforts to control the uncontrollable. But she also reveals a child-like vulnerability when her hard shell is shattered by a stray remark from her now-lost mother, or when she gracefully embraces the difficult but human journey the entire family has to take together.