The primary business of “The Family Business” is living and dying — and living with dying. Written by the father-and-son team of Ain and David Gordon, and performed by the pair with Valda Setterfield (Ain’s mother and David’s wife), the play is an inventive theatrical exploration of the bonds of love and dependence, ties that grow both stronger and more tenuous as a family ages.
When Aunt Annie Kinsman (David Gordon), age 78, takes a bad fall in her New York apartment, her great nephew Paul (Ain Gordon) comes rather reluctantly to her rescue. An aspiring playwright who grudgingly has taken his place in the family plumbing firm, Paul has reached the dangerous age of 30, only to find his life subsumed by the needs of his cantankerous injured great aunt.
His father, Phil (the chief proprietor of Phil & Son Plumbing), has taken an unannounced leave of absence; there’s only the ever-helpful Pearl Wonder (Setterfield), the company’s longtime secretary, to fall back on.
As Paul navigates the shoals of emergency rooms and Annie’s mailbox full of doctor’s bills (Drs. Piranha, Devour and Paymore are milking Medicare on Annie’s ticket), Paul begins losing appendages — a pinky here, an ear there — as his Aunt’s desperate need to hold on to him becomes a literal assault.
It’s a brilliant bit of absurdity and, indeed, the play’s appeal relies on a constant tweaking of theatrical conventions. The characters are, at heart, fairly familiar: a Jewish family, with all the requisite reservoirs of guilt and fastidiousness, by which Paul’s trip to buy Annie a housecoat — not a housedress, God forbid — becomes a drama of comically epic proportions.
But the performers — or is it the characters? — talk to the audience, and announce scenes and scene changes, and refer blithely to flashbacks, and debate the necessity of stage directions.
Setterfield plays a good dozen parts: a troupe of care-givers that cause Annie more grief than good when she gets out of the hospital; Paul’s mother and grandmother, in a two-page staging of Phil’s life; various shop assistants; even the ambulance — and she’s rather marvelous at them all.
The integrity of David Gordon’s performance is a simpler thing: He alone plays a single character — in itself a graceful touch that keeps the focus of the play on Annie’s gradual, grudging negotiations with death — and he plays her with great warmth and simplicity.
Ain Gordon is best in the play’s first act, as Paul. The relationship between the childless Annie and her most-likely-to-be-childless great nephew (Paul is gay) makes for the play’s most affecting moments. We almost feel cheated when Ain returns in act two as his father, Phil, and the play’s family focus expands. (In fact the second act lacks the drive of the first; it’s a little diffuse).
Although the material is given a jolt of theatrical energy from the knowledge that this is indeed a family onstage, the play can stand on its own as a bleakly funny picture of the exigencies of dying. But if you can easily imagine the roles being taken by other actors, you can’t imagine them being played to greater effect.