Studio Arena Theater has developed a commendable tradition of producing new plays that have a direct thematic connection with its home city of Buffalo. In recent years, “City of Light,” Tom Dudzick’s “Tavern Trilogy” and A.R. Gurney’s “Buffalo Gal” have been seen here, with Dudzick’s three plays becoming record-breaking hits. “While We Were Bowling” tries hard to join the winner’s circle. Although it boasts a slick physical production, Carter W. Lewis’ script suffers a stylistic 7-10 split that proves impossible to negotiate in the end.
We start in 1957, in the home of the comfortably lower-middle-class, bowling-obsessed McGlauphlin family. Dad’s a kind of blue-collar Ward Cleaver, happily clueless, but the rest of the family has a case of galloping dysfunction that seems far more ’90s than ’50s. Mom is a secret drinker, Sis has a case of overheated hormones and Brother is firmly (but none too comfortably) in the closet.
Two more characters are added to the mix: the sister’s suitor, a Fonzie wannabe called Stickpin, and precocious black youngster Jeremy, who gets dropped off with the family’s new television and simply becomes a part of the household.
We visit the bowling alley, the family’s spiritual center, and learn about a curse under which Dad labors, being eternally unable to beat his own father’s three-game high score record.
OK, we’re in a culture that takes bowling seriously. That makes sense. What doesn’t resonate is the attempt to mine the kind of offbeat family comedy reminiscent of “Malcolm in the Middle” in a period piece.
Things don’t improve with a first-act curtain that combines melodrama with black comedy and sets this group spinning even more wildly off the axis of convention in act two.
To make matters worse, the whole thing has a third stylistic level added by the fact that it’s all narrated by the daughter in a kind of pseudo-poetic/nostalgic flashback that sounds like the voiceover from a really bad made-for-TV movie.
Thesps all try hard, but — with the aid of director Gavin Cameron-Webb — they’ve mostly chosen to concentrate on the broad comedy of their characters.
There are two exceptions: James Miles, as the boy who gets dropped off with the TV, manages to be funny yet real at the same time — a rare achievement in this play. And Lauren Bone as the daughter is an attractive and stylish young woman who manages to hold your attention, even in the murkiest of the monologues she’s called on to deliver.
The major problem is that author Lewis hasn’t decided what kind of play he wanted to write. That confusion transmits itself to the cast, and in turn, to the audience.
Without major rewriting, prospects for future productions appear to be about as slim as scoring three consecutive strikes in the 10th frame.