This conversation seems to want to go somewhere, and I’m just not sure where that place is,” says a character, all too aptly, in Amy Freed’s “Freedomland,” making its world premiere at South Coast Repertory. A talky, laboriously written play about an impromptu family reunion run amok, “Freedomland” reveals a talented but undisciplined writer with bleak comic instincts who hasn’t found her sea legs yet.
The Underfingers are a clan of eccentrics, but unlike families of stage madcaps penned by everyone from Noel Coward to Nicky Silver, Freed hasn’t managed — or perhaps even attempted — to make them endearing. Patriarch Noah (Peter Michael Goetz) is a retired professor of comparative religion, living in what looks like Joseph Cornell’s garage (courtesy of designer Michael C. Smith), whose conversation is almost exclusively pontification of a vaguely apocalyptic and mystical bent.
He barely registers the arrival of his troubled daughter Polly (Annie LaRussa), who’s climbed highest on the family’s low-self-esteem totem pole. She’s eternally working on a dissertation about the women of the “Iliad,” and fleeing the ego-crushing influence of sister Sig (Heather Ehlers), a trendy painter. Addled New Age nurturer Claude (Karen Kondazian), Noah’s latest companion, welcomes her rather more warmly, suggesting they take a bath together.
Polly’s not the only visitor to the family nest for long, as homesteading anti-civilization brother Seth (Simon Billig) soon arrives with his white-trashy girlfriend, Lori (Erin J. O’Brien), followed in short order by the advent of Sig, seeking (inexplicably) to bring Polly back into her orbit.
Sig has brought along art-magazine scribe Titus (Maury Ginsberg), the sane-outsider figure who doesn’t play as much of a role as sane-outsider figures generally do in such plays.
Absent, of course, is Mama, and it’s toward the painful recollection of her early exit from the family hearth, and the psychic wounds it opened in each of the kids, that the play inevitably, and agonizingly, progresses.
Much pain is aired (“I still have a hole in me,” Polly bleats of her mother’s desertion; “You didn’t teach me what I needed!” Seth rails at Noah); many wisecracks are exchanged, mostly nasty (“No one wants to hear about your timid little attempts at self-mutilation,” Sig snaps when Polly recalls suicidal tendencies. “Just slash or get off the pot”).
Polly and Claude make moves, pathetic and predatory, respectively, on the hapless Titus. The angry Seth spars with his father, kills a deer and blows up a building. Sig fumes and spews out barbs that thinly mask her own abandonment issues. And Noah pontificates like there’s no tomorrow. On aging, on civilization, on God, on the fact that there’s no tomorrow. (With all the ill feeling floating around the stage, it’s a wonder, and an irritation, that no one ever tells him to shut the hell up.)
The play ends on a banal note, with the family recalling a happy visit to the amusement park of the title, pivotally remembered as the day just before Mother left and the family fell violently from paradise to Earth and its attendant miseries.
Freed clearly has a lot on her mind — you don’t name a character Noah and have him interested in animal husbandry for nothing — but it never adds up to much. The issues she tackles are too many, too diffuse and too unfocused (why Titus’ Oedipal breakdown? There’s enough angst to deal with in the family proper).
More significantly for a play about a fractured family, there’s scarcely a passage that has an emotional — or even everyday — truth to it (an exception is Polly’s sad, comic speech about the comforts of AA to the non-alcoholic). It all comes off as stage antics suffused with the latest disorders and disfunctions.
Performances under David Emmes’ broad-tending direction are of the neuroses-as-vaudeville kind, which accents the too-carefully shaped dialogue.
Freed hasn’t yet learned how to lose her voice in her characters’ — Kondazian comes off best, perhaps because she’s at least pleasant, and her dialogue doesn’t smack quite so loudly of the playwright’s pen.
Ehlers, LaRussa and Billig as the kids each hit their characters’ primary trait (bitchy, whiny, angry, in that order) with precision, and Goetz delivers Noah’s arkfuls of dialogue with polish.