There are two things you can pretty much count on in a LAByrinth production: fine ensemble acting and innovative shows. True to company form, a terrific LAB cast helmed by Philip Seymour Hoffman applies the house’s top-notch performance treatment to “A Family for All Occasions.” But it would be a stretch to characterize Bob Glaudini’s new play as inventive. Unlike “Jack Goes Boating,” a more adventurous play (and subsequent film) from this scribe-helmer duo, the new work is a bit offbeat but presents no serious challenge to the conventions of the traditional dysfunctional family drama.
Taken individually, the members of this miserably unhappy family have a slightly larger-than-life quality that makes them slightly more interesting than your own miserably unhappy family. Which is about the only thing to hold onto, once they start stripping the skin from one another.
Howard, the pathetically ineffectual patriarch played with heartbreaking sensitivity by Jeffrey DeMunn, is a retired electrician who selflessly waits hand and foot on his ungrateful family. What makes Howard endearing, rather than irritating or just plain pitiful, is his touching love of language and his yearning to communicate with someone who reveres words as much as he does. “I think sometimes I’d like someone to talk to,” he says wistfully.
Howard’s down-to-earth wife, May (the amazing Deirdre O’Connell, giving another definitive perf of a wrung-out working-class woman), is too intellectually grounded, too physically exhausted and too spiritually drained to give a hoot for her husband’s lofty tastes.
Howard’s two grown children (May’s step-kids) are also drawn to type, but in a slightly exaggerated, almost expressionistic style.
Daughter Sue, a self-regarding young woman with a mouth like a sewer, is a total slut and proud of it. As played by Justine Lupe (an actress to watch, in “Frances Ha” among other film and TV projects), Sue is meaner than a junkyard dog, and her palpable contempt for her thin-skinned father is an ugly exercise in cruelty.
In a brave perf by notable newcomer Charlie Saxton, Howard’s insolent teenaged son, Sam, is the monster version of the countless disrespectful sons who make themselves thoroughly disagreeable in family dramas. Although this self-entitled child appears to be a harmless slug, waiting for the world to acknowledge his genius, Sam’s attacks on his father are venomous enough to relocate him to the poisonous snake category of the animal kingdom.
With the appearance of a well-mannered visitor named Oz (the ever-personable William Jackson Harper), we’re in relatively realistic territory again. This sweet young black man has been lured to the house by sexy Sue, who proceeds to seduce him in a very funny (and honestly original) bedroom scene.
But the member of this family from hell that Oz truly bonds with turns out to be Howard, who shares his love of language and way with words. “A friend of Sue’s who reads!” says Howard, unable to contain his happiness and determined to make Oz a member of the family.
Although the events of the play are fairly predictable, that’s not the dramaturgical problem here. It’s the uncertain dramatic style, which staggers from heightened realism to tentative absurdity, leaving characters to fend for themselves in whatever style they happen to land on.
David Meyer’s set design — a folding box-set of fully realized individual spaces — is a marvel of efficiency on the cramped stage of this bandbox theater. But the literal nature of these multiple settings keeps the play grounded in real places in real time, even as the loopy characters beg for a more abstract treatment. Or perhaps just more comic inventiveness.