“Big Sky,” the new play by Pulitzer finalist Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros (“Omnium Gatherum”) making its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse, begins in a well-grounded place, focusing on what we quickly discover is the messy unraveling of a marriage. But in act two, the play splinters off in a hundred unforeseeable directions, its cohesiveness dissolving into dramaturgical chaos. By the final scene, this otherwise well-intentioned, and in parts wryly comedic, study of familial dysfunction and financial ruin has given way to farce.
Directed by Broadway regular John Rando (“On the Town,” “A Christmas Story”), “Big Sky” opens on Jen (Jennifer Westfeldt) in a luxurious Aspen chalet, reading romantic literary passages to someone over the phone. The setting is snowy and rustic (in Derek McLane’s luxe set design) and Jen is dressed in cozy apres-ski chic (by costume designer Denitsa Bliznakova), and looks every bit the moneyed but discontented housewife with time on her hands and a gaping emotional hole.
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Beneath the cashmere sweaters and snow boots, there are deeper secrets, and it begins with Jen’s husband, Jack (Jon Tenney), who’s brought his family on a trip to Colorado at the behest of a potential employer after a demoralizing three-year period of unemployment. Jen refuses to have sex with Jack, instead carrying on a furtive romance with the man on the phone, a hospice patient who’s recently made a miraculous recovery. Meanwhile, Jen and Jack’s defiant daughter, Tessa (Emily Robinson of “Transparent”), would rather be home with her boyfriend, Catoni, a 25-year-old Native American whose name means “Big Sky.”
We never see Catoni, since he works as a porter in the family’s Manhattan apartment building. But through Tessa’s adolescent obsession with him, he becomes a fleshed-out character whose symbolic moniker indicates a painful collective longing that besets the entire family.
Jen’s gay friend, Jonathan, has also come along to Colorado. He’s grieving the recent death of his partner and hasn’t paid his rent in months. Jack has promised him one final check to finance a fledgling pillow business, and Jonathan is as shaky in his personal life as he is on the slopes, where his singular conquest is the bunny slope.
It’s never clear why Jack and Jen have invited Jonathan on this particular trip, but for the playwright, his main purpose is to serve as a convenient narrative device. When he and Tessa get stoned, she steals his stash of prescription weed and then goes partying with the daughter of Jack’s soon-to-be new boss. The girls, drunk and high, run over a buffalo and the police find pot in the car.
With his potential job now in limbo, Jack wants Tessa to take the fall. Tessa, meanwhile, is beyond consolation, distraught and histrionic over having contributed to the death of a sacred animal in Native American tradition. And Jonathan can kiss Jack’s financial favor goodbye.
“Big Sky” centers on a family struggling to keep up appearances when things have so obviously fallen apart. But whereas insolvency and marital strife seem ample material for a play, Gersten-Vassilaros goes several unnecessary steps further, saddling her characters with a distracting panoply of problems that are introduced far too late to feel organic to the plot. These left-field reveals — Jen’s mother’s death, Jack’s affair with the dog walker — venture dangerously close to absurdity.
The acting is similarly melodramatic, especially in the play’s latter half. There’s a nervousness to Westfeldt’s performance that has become all-too stereotypical in depictions of a married woman-in-crisis, and Tenney’s explosive outrage over his daughter smoking pot feels antiquated and hyperbolic. And while teenage girls are known for being thorny and hormonal, Robinson’s Tessa would have been far more intriguing to watch had there been some nuance to her performance.
Instead she becomes a caricature, which seems in keeping with the play’s outlandish ending. “Big Sky” turns out to be emblematic of its own theme, proving that less is often more.