×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

L.A. Theater Review: ‘Big Sky’

With:
Arnie Burton, Emily Robinson, Jon Tenney, Jennifer Westfeldt.

“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.

Popular on Variety

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.

L.A. Theater Review: 'Big Sky'

The Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse; 135 seats; $99 top. Opened, reviewed June 7, 2016. Running time: TWO HOURS.

Production: A Geffen Playhouse production of a play in two acts by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros.

Creative: Directed by John Rando. scenic Designer, Derek McLane; costumes, Denitsa Bliznakova; lighting, Jaymi Lee Smith; sound, Jon Gottlieb; fight director, Steve Rankin; dramaturg, Amy Levinson; production stage manager, Elizabeth A. Brohm.

Cast: Arnie Burton, Emily Robinson, Jon Tenney, Jennifer Westfeldt.

More Legit

  • Bess Wohl

    Listen: The Impossible Plays of Bess Wohl

    The playwright Bess Wohl is always chasing a wild idea — and she’s found that rather than scaring away her collaborators, it just makes them more eager. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “I started my career thinking, oh, I’ll just write a play that’s really easy to do,” Wohl said on the latest episode [...]

  • Roundabout Theatre Company: Three New Plays

    Roundabout Theatre's Off-Broadway Season Adds Three Shows From Female Playwrights

    Roundabout Theatre Company, led by artistic director and CEO Todd Haimes, announced Tuesday that three female-written plays will be added to the 2020-2021 Off-Broadway season. Sanaz Toossi’s “English” will make its world premiere in fall of 2020, while Lindsey Ferrentino’s “The Year to Come” and Anna Ziegler’s “The Wanderers” will make their New York debuts [...]

  • Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant,

    Gregg Smith, Dancer and Choreographer Assistant, Dies at 73

    Gregg Smith, a dancer, casting director and assistant choreographer who had a long association with director Kenny Ortega, has died. He was 73. Smith died on Jan. 1. The industry veteran worked as a performer in the national touring company of the musical “Hair” and in a Los Angeles production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” He [...]

  • Frozen review musical

    Warmth and Humor Pervade Pantages Production of 'Frozen' the Musical

    In 2013, Disney’s “Frozen” hit screens like a 100 mile-per-hour snowball, sparking a pop cultural phenomenon in which little girls and boys pranced about dressed in Anna and Elsa and Olaf costumes while belting aloud “Let It Go,” Elsa’s feminist anthemic response to ice powers rendering her a societal outcast. The animated movie won two [...]

  • My Name Is Lucy Barton review

    'My Name is Lucy Barton': Theater Review

    Laura Linney is in love. Just watch the radiant expression on her face as she wraps her arms around the character of Lucy Barton, a role she played in two separate engagements at the Bridge Theater in London, and is now reprising on Broadway in “My Name is Lucy Barton.” The feeling is obviously mutual, [...]

  • 'Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal' to

    'Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal' to Air Weekly, Syndicate Nationally (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Broadway Profiles with Tamsen Fadal” will become nationally syndicated, marking a first for a program about the Great White Way. Beginning in fall 2020, the monthly show will increase frequency to air weekly. The show is hosted and executive-produced by 12-time Emmy Award winner Tamsen Fadal, a news anchor at WPIX, the channel that initially [...]

  • Laura Linney My Name Is Lucy

    Listen: What Laura Linney Learns From Bad Shows

    For Laura Linney, every stage experience is a learning experience. “Even the bad ones!” she cheerfully declared on the new episode of Stagecraft, Variety’s theater podcast. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “Even the ones that are really bad, and I’ve been really bad in some things,” continued the Emmy winner, currently back on Broadway [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content