In Nicky Silver’s previous play, “The Lyons,” which originated at the Vineyard under the direction of Mark Brokaw, Linda Lavin played a mother who ruins her children’s lives to gratify her own monstrous ego. In the scribe’s new play, “Too Much Sun,” which just opened at the Vineyard under the direction of Brokaw, Lavin plays a mother who ruins her daughter’s life to gratify her own monstrous ego. And just for laughs, this modern-day Medea actually gets to play the role of that murderous Greek matriarch in the prologue.
The play is one of Silver’s slapdash specials — loosely hinged scenes in which adults behave like bratty children, blaming one another for things they’ve done or failed to do with their lives. But, standing alone in front of a stage curtain, Lavin is priceless in that opening scene. Resplendent in the gaudy red-and-gold robe, golden coronet and tight little golden curls supplied by costumer Michael Krass, she’s completely absorbed in the role of Audrey Langham, a celebrated but notoriously difficult stage star condemned to play Medea in Chicago, a very demanding theater town.
It’s the final dress, but this narcissistic prima diva keeps disrupting the rehearsal with her petulant complaints. Her costume is too garish, her dressing room is too hot, and her director is only 12 years old. As Audrey escalates from dread to panic to full-blown meltdown, Lavin strikes the perfect balance between the humor and the horror of the situation — right up to the moment that the unhinged actress storms off the stage and out of a job.
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Hounded by her apoplectic agent, Audrey descends on her daughter, Kitty (Jennifer Westfeldt), and son-in-law, Dennis (Ken Barnett), at their sun-washed cottage (design by Donyale Werle) on Cape Cod. In the spirit of Blanche DuBois bursting in on Stella and Stanley in their cramped New Orleans tenement, Audrey acts as a whirlwind catalyst in these close quarters, disrupting the lives of everyone who blunders into her force field.
In lieu of character, the men in this picture have a variety of Dickensian tics and quirks to distinguish them. Lucas (Matt Dickson), the college-bound kid next door, is dealing drugs. His rich father, Winston (a sturdy Richard Bekins), is obsessed with India. Kitty’s husband Dennis, an uptight ad-man who actually calls himself “uptight,” is writing a ridiculous sci-fi novel. And Gil (Matt Dellapina, biting the bullet), an emissary sent by Audrey’s agent, secretly wants to be a rabbi.
In their roles as plot pawns, Dennis and Lucas have an unconvincing affair, Gil plays a mechanical function, and Winston is tagged for Audrey’s next husband. At least that courtship leads to a wonderfully loopy scene in which Audrey serenades Winston with a throat-clearing German-language version of the Brecht-Weill song “Surabaya Johnny,” a betrayed woman’s lament for her no-good man that Audrey thinks is a seductive love song.
The only interaction that draws blood, though, is the mother-daughter face-off. Indie film fave Westfeldt, who exhibited grace under fire earlier this season in Steven Soderbergh’s production of “The Library,” holds her own nicely here. Even as Kitty protests how much she loves Audrey, she’s seething with rage over a lifetime of neglect by a self-absorbed mother who presented her with a new stepfather every year she was in college and sent her understudy to her daughter’s wedding. Audrey tops her horror stories with a few of her own, so let’s call this battle a draw.
Silver’s absurdist comic style presents an acting challenge because it demands rational behavior from characters put in illogical situations. Under Brokaw’s helming, Dellapina seems pretty comfortable playing that ridiculous would-be rabbi, but his fellow thesps have a harder time finding the humor in their more realistically drawn characters. Lavin, of course, is in a class by herself, at once monstrously funny and absurdly human. Don’t even ask how she does it. That kind of comic mastery remains a mystery.