Someone Beth Henley knows must have had a pretty lousy time at the Betty Ford Center. A few serious bleachings would be required to turn her new play “Family Week,” which takes place at “the best treatment center in the country,” into a black comedy. This is easily the most flagrantly miserable play to be seen in some time, depicting a week of recovery so dreary as to make a lifetime of heroin addiction seem like a Doris Day film festival. Opening this bleak production at the height of the spring theater season has to be the height of folly.
Angelina Phillips plays Claire, a patient at the Pastures Recovery Center in the Arizona desert. She is joined there, most unwillingly, by her trampy, boozing sister Rickey (Carol Kane), her mother Lena (Rose Gregorio) and her daughter Kay (Julia Weldon). They’re arriving for a week of family therapy, otherwise known as scab picking, under the helpful supervision of an officious staff of counselors, alternatingly impersonated by the cast of four.
Claire, played by Phillips with a wan, glassy-eyed fragility that soon sets the teeth on edge, has plenty to be recovering from. For instance, a year ago her teenage son Daniel was shot to death in a random killing, and her husband is preparing to serve her with divorce papers. But the most poisonous influences in her life appear to be the relatives who are supposedly rallying to her support (or not — another sister couldn’t come, preferring a beach vacation).
Boy, does this clan have issues! Rickey is bitter at Claire because Claire wouldn’t give her the insurance money from Daniel’s death to start a business. Rickey is bitter at Lena because she had a miserable childhood (“It was like growing up in a war zone,” she eagerly tells a counselor. “Our parents physically fought. They were both alcoholics. My mother hated me.”). Claire’s daughter Kay is bitter at her father because he beats her with a belt and bribes her, and bitter at her mother because she screams at her. Claire is bitter at Kay because she “always tells me what a bad mother I am. … If she can’t be nice to me I don’t want her,” she sweetly adds. Grandma Lena is just plain bitter.
Pretty much everyone onstage waves the red flag of abuse at one point or another — Lena even got coal in her stocking once. And sexual molestation also makes its inevitable appearance when Claire helpfully reminds Rickey that their grandfather molested her. (Thanks, sis!)
The play invites us to a series of encounter sessions among the family in which they are encouraged by the patronizing staff to eviscerate each other emotionally by dredging up the aforementioned grievances one by one, from prepared lists and using a prescribed set of words to describe their feelings. Confronted with Rickey’s complaints, Claire is asked by the counselor what she’s feeling. “Ah, pain. Fear. Guilt. … Anger. … Shame. Loneliness. That’s all,” she says pathetically, having listed every option available.
“Family Week” boasts many stinging moments that remind us of this playwright’s disarming ability to wring laughs from the darkest corners of experience, usually the dysfunctional family dynamic. And there is indeed a certain amount of gallows humor to be found in depicting the empty platitudes and cruel exercises proffered at treatment centers as cures for all psychological ailments.
But Henley’s writing is so sour and monotonous here that the laughs soon wither in your throat. The play is pathologically unpleasant — Henley has scrupulously covered every corner of this family portrait with ghoulish details, and eventually it ceases to have any discernible relation to real human experience, from which all authentic comedy must spring. One could also argue that it’s too easy, and somewhat tasteless, to sneer at programs that, whatever their intellectual failings, have unquestionably been of use to many unhappy people.
The production has been designed to accurately replicate the sterile, joyless environment of an institution. John Arnone’s ugly set consists of generic furniture scattered awkwardly against a forest-green backdrop, and Paul Gallo’s lighting is unflinchingly harsh for the scenes set in the Pastures Center.
With the exception of Kane, always a lively presence with her natural quirks and little-girl-lost pathos, the cast seems strait-jacketed by the darkness of Henley’s vision. Gregorio gives a largely affectless performance, calmly reciting Lena’s failings as a mother when she’s not sarcastically questioning the therapists’ credentials, and Weldon is almost as flat as the dour Kay.
Played with a loopy, ferocious edge, with no attempt to milk pathos from the material, “Family Week” might at least succeed as a searing, Christopher Durang-style satire. But Ulu Grosbard’s direction has a somber, treacly tone that suggests we’re meant to be laughing through tears. We’re not, really. The whole show appears to be on some kind of mood-altering drug and it may leave you ready to reach for one. It’s a walking, talking advertisement for Prozac, performed eight times a week.