Zoe Kazan’s play begins with an interesting premise. Advertisements for the Manhattan Theatre Club world premiere read, “We move out. But can we move on? WE LIVE HERE.” It starts in the New England home of the Bateman family, with the mother, Maggie (Amy Irving), and father, Lawrence (Mark Blum), four days before their daughter Allie’s (Jessica Collins) wedding to Sandy (Jeremy Shamos). The younger daughter, Dinah (Betty Gilpin), now studying piano at Juilliard, returns home with her new boyfriend, Daniel (Oscar Isaac), a Juilliard music professor.
Daniel’s presence stirs a cauldron of sibling rivalries, mental illnesses and family secrets—as Daniel was the former boyfriend of Allie’s dead twin sister, Andi, a talented pianist who suffered from depression.
However, instead of a probing psychological drama, “We Live Here” more closely resembles a live audience taping of a movie made for television (We’re talking standard cable, maybe Lifetime or WE: Women’s Entertainment Television, not HBO or Showtime).
Often as with TV movies, the stage is impeccably constructed. The various rooms, furniture, wallpaper, glass windows and doors opening to an outside, the partially visible kitchen, stairs leading to the unseen upstairs bedrooms, and even the crown molding invite expectations of a sophisticated production. However, the script lacks the same tight attention to detail. This play is just not ready for prime time.
Inconsistencies quickly chisel away at the play’s credibility. Dinah arrives at home, surprising her parents. She quizzically touches upon a guest whom she has invited to the wedding, confiding to her father that he is Daniel. She then frantically tries to call Daniel to disinvite him, only to learn that the area fails to get reliable cell phone reception. Daniel shows up at the door, in a leather jacket having ridden his motorcycle from New York, pleased to be reunited with the Batemans. Daniel and Dinah confess that she rode home on the back of his bike. Where did Daniel drop off Dinah and how did she get to the house? He also arrives for the family wedding, only with clothes stuffed in a backpack?
Maggie anxiously announces Maria, the gardener, is coming any minute to cut the peonies in the yard for the wedding floral arrangements. Maria is also the seamstress they have been expecting to alter Dinah’s bridesmaid’s dress. Aren’t landscaping and tailoring highly separate skills?
Such minor mini-gaps in logic serve as red flags of loose-ended sloppiness in a play that comes off as undeveloped.
Some of the dialogue has a natural flow and humor (and viciousness) of that within family walls, where no audience is listening. When talking about Sandy, Maggie says to Dinah that he seems gay. “Gay like a Mormon, not gay like a fireman,” to which Dinah responds, “It would be just like Allie to marry a gay.”
However, the script is uneven and in the two-hour production would benefit from sharp editing, eliminating the simply cringe-inducing lines. Call me cynical (or lucky) but I found some dialogue far removed from any conversation to which I’ve ever even remotely been a party.
Sandy: Ohhh, are you my baby bunny?
Sandy: You know what? I think you are. I think you’re just a sweet little baby bunny.
Allie: I’m not a bunny. (In a baby voice.)
Sandy: What are you then?
Allie: I’m a bad little kitty. (More of a baby voice.)
Sandy: Poor little kitty. Do you need someone to take you home (Allie meowing.) Do you need me to take you home and give you scratches? I’m going to give you lots of scratches and kisses and take such good care of you.
As if it weren’t off-putting enough the first time, more resurfaces.
Sandy: Hey, little bunny. Why don’t we go up to our little bunny bed and get all snuggled up and have some sweet, sweet bunny time?
The characters lack empathetic, convincingly developed complexity. The script fails to set a consistent or realistic tone of living in the aftermath of the death of a child, 12 years ago. At times, the family seems adjusted, discussing who’ll stay in Andi’s room? Yet in an unnatural, schizophrenic turn, reference to Andi also becomes verboten. An accidental inclusion of her photo almost results in cancellation of an entire wedding slideshow.
It is believable that the daughters inherited some of the aggressive, self-centered personality traits of the mother, and seek men who resemble their more passive father. Irving lights up the stage with a charismatic performance. However, the men all share remarkably unflappable personalities, and for much of the play, come off as flat, stock characters.
Normally, I do not write with “spoiler alerts” because I avoid revealing surprises. Although plot “twists” in this play seem all too predictable, if not inevitable—technically inserted right here, is a “spoiler alert”:
While Kazan seizes upon psychiatric illnesses of severe depression, anorexia and possibly neurotic narcissism as the wheels of her drama—she overlooks how Daniel would have to be a “DSM-IV” psychopath to wreak such emotional havoc on a family, sleep with all three daughters, and then happily want to stay in their home. Yet, he never suggests an inkling of a dark, sinister, twisted character of multiple layers.
Allie graphically describes the horrific aftermath of her twin sister’s suicide, which occurred while Allie was having sex with her younger sister’s current boyfriend. Yet, this revelation somehow leads to the two living sisters forging a closer connection, and literally cuddling together beneath a blanket?
This play contains some intriguing elements. But it needs to go back to a dramatic workshop to logically link its parts into a story that can emotionally connect with its audience.
“We Live Here” by Zoe Kazan. Directed by Sam Gold. Presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club at New York City Center Stage I, 131 West 55th Street, Oct. 12 - Nov. 6, 2011.
Betsy Kim is a writer, living in New York City.