Melissa Ross’s first play, “Thinner Than Water,” seems custom-tailored for that thing they do at LAByrinth — that anxious, angry, smartass, pissed-off-at-the-world attitude that more or less defines the house style. That confrontational approach brings out the best (and the worst) in the squabbling siblings in this quirky family dramedy who turn on one another when they are summoned to the deathbed of their estranged father. A supremo cast makes neat work of Ross’s abrasive characters, while first-time helmer Mimi O’Donnell explores the black humor of the piece from every ironic angle.
Civilization might not be in need of yet another play about a dysfunctional family. But Ross writes in a drolly idiosyncratic idiom and her screwball characters are not the usual clichés. She also comes up with an interesting variation on the domestic-crisis formula: the person responsible for the individual grievances and collective angst of this twitchy family never appears on stage.
Martin, the old hell-raiser who fathered (by three separate wives) the three siblings in this piece, is in the hospital and already out of the picture when the play opens. This good-for-nothing rascal has been living with an adorably dotty woman named Gwen (Deirdre O’Connell, creating yet another warm and wonderful character to treasure) and has long lost touch with his unhappy and quarrelsome children. But the old man has passed on the legacy of his miserable parenting to every one of them.
Renee (a holy terror, in Elizabeth Canavan’s high-voltage perf) is the eldest child, married and the mother of two, but seething with the resentments of a lifetime. “I am the one you call in case of an emergency,” she rages, nailing the eternal dilemma of the eldest child whose responsibilities have become her burdens.
Her younger sister, Cassie (played with comic know-how by the gifted Lisa Joyce), is an emotional train wreck. Although so screwed up and utterly irresponsible that she can’t hang onto a decent job or a decent boyfriend, she’s still endearing in the manner of a naughty child.
Caught between his two half-sisters is Gary (a sweet slacker in Alfredo Narciso’s appealing perf), who clerks in a comic-book shop and lives in his mother’s garage. In a pathetic attempt to escape the bossy women in his life, the poor sap becomes a big brother to the only child of a single mother named Angela (a terrific in-your-face comic turn from Megan Mostyn-Brown) who proves to be the biggest ballbreaker of them all.
The main drawback of the play is that it has no plot to speak of. There’s not much in the way of action, either, beyond the characters’ awkward attempts to reach out to one another for warmth and comfort.
“A long time ago, I used to be nice,” Renee says, and being exposed to Gwen’s emotional honesty makes her want to be nice again. Gary’s persistent attempts at being a Big Brother and Cassie’s commitment to a relationship are more signs of positive change. But there’s no way that a change of heart can serve as plot, or personal growth pass for dramatic action.