In “Down the Garden Paths,” Anne Meara illustrates the idea that each human life contains myriad possibilities. But guess what? All of them are miserable.
Meara’s new play is a sad letdown after her tart and accomplished “After-Play,” which was a popular hit both Off Broadway and in regional productions. “Garden Paths” is a more ambitious work — it boasts a fanciful, Ayckbourn-esque dramatic gimmick — but Meara appears to mistake sourness for profundity here. Relentlessly, even obsessively unpleasant, and scarcely funny, “Garden Paths” is an unfortunate vehicle for the revered stage veterans Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson.
The play opens with an extraneous video segment clearly designed to give Meara’s husband Jerry Stiller a role in this family affair. (The production also features Roberta Wallach, the daughter of Wallach and Jackson, and Amy Stiller, the daughter of Stiller and Meara.) In a feeble comic mockumentary, Stiller impersonates the patron of an award being given to physics journalist/TV personality Arthur Garden (John Shea).
The play proper unfolds as the tuxedoed Arthur, award in hand, celebrates with his family after the ceremony. Some celebration! Mom Stella (Jackson) gets drunk and bitter, as does Arthur’s brother Max (Adam Grupper). Max’s wife Claire (Roberta Wallach) lunges at Arthur, with whom she’s having an affair. Family skeletons are exhumed for all to snipe over, with most tension centering on the fateful day when Arthur saved Max from drowning. The air is thick with acrimony and the occasional bit of tired shtick: Stella and befuddled patriarch Sid (Eli Wallach) were vaudevillians.
At the bitter conclusion of this family reunion, the video screen descends again, and once again Arthur is given his award. We’ve learned that Arthur’s new book concerns the idea that each decision or occurrence in life gives birth to various possible sequences of events that exist in parallel universes (huh?). Now the play gives us another look at the same basic characters at the same party, with a twist: Instead of being saved by his brother, young Max died out on the lake that day.
Needless to say, no one’s much happier in this alternate reality. The miseries are slightly different; the excess alcohol is consumed by a different character. But the vision of family life as a crucible of whining recrimination remains painfully intact.
In David Saint’s consistently clumsy and apparently under-rehearsed production, even the most accomplished members of the cast give strained performances. Only Wallach manages to consistently find some subtle charm and humanity in his character — playing the vaud vet, yet. Jackson has some affecting moments, but her performance is uneven. Most of the rest of the cast — Leslie Lyles and the hard-working Shea in particular — deserves sympathy more than censure.
By the time the video screen descends for a third time, and Arthur steps up to receive his award yet again, the audience will have suspicions about the tenor if not the details of what’s to come (this time Max is mentally handicapped and Arthur’s gay — oy!). They may well be pondering their own life choices, and regretting one in particular that cost a criminal $65.