You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents' Divorce
nytheatre.com review by Bess Rowen
April 11, 2012
A show with the word “divorce” in the title rarely conjures the image of an evening of fun entertainment, but the The Flea Theater and The Civilians have managed to do just that with You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents’ Divorce. Through honest acting, gentle structuring, and deceptively simple staging this production takes a sharp look at divorce through a kind of postmodern montage. Welcome to a place where hearing “you better sit down” makes you want to do just that.
Conceived by Jennifer R. Morris, and written by Morris, Anne Kauffman, Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Janice Paran, and Robbie Collier Sublett, You Better Sit Down has a fairly simple premise. Each actor asked their own parents about various aspects of their relationship and subsequent divorce, which they then re-perform verbatim on stage in tandem. The actors also play their own parent(s), which is made explicit by a note projected onto the screen at the start of the show.
The screen itself is an interesting character in this piece, as it serves as the overall framing device for the narrative. Projection designer Caite Hevner’s titles and images serve to supplement the strong work that performers Miller, Sublett, Morris, and Maher are doing. Mimi Lien’s set design, which consists of four evenly spaced but unique chairs, is in direct dialogue with this upstage screen, as the “characters” are sometimes identified by projected labels above their seats. These elements of design are most impressive in their simplicity, as they contribute to an overall thematic concept of staging without distracting from the narratives.
Indeed it the narratives themselves are what make this show so enthralling. Somehow these four performers are generous enough to share their parents’ actual words without making one feel like a voyeur or making themselves subjects of pathos. The natural narratives contain the kinds of twists and turns that only life could author, and the additional level of personal connection on the part of the performers makes for an irresistible combination.
There is also a kind of self-conscious sleight-of-hand in the show, as we know that they are performing the words that were spoken to them. This relationship of child/parent is thereby replaced by that of audience/performer, but this whole shift is repeatedly highlighted as various aspects of the play remind us of the initial circumstances that produced the words. Throughout the play we hear clips of audio from the real interviews, moments of interruption such as a phone call or doorbell, and even the naturally imperfect phrasings that come from daily conversation.
This intimacy between the performer and their parent(s) is therefore transmitted to the audience, and I felt a connection with these stories and these people. This is all the more impressive considering that both male actors, Maher and Sublett, are playing their mothers, without any costume, makeup or other gendered props. Their bodies and voices convey these women without a trace of camp or irony, just as the other two women portray their matriarchs. A great deal of credit for this tone surely goes to director Anne Kauffman, who keeps things light and funny when they are, but also respectful and powerful when they need to be.
No matter what your experience with divorce is, You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents’ Divorce is simply a show about people: who we are, where we came from, and how we get along with each other in the world. The Flea has a strong history of presenting creative new work, such as the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired She Kills Monsters or the 5-½ hour long collection of Sophocles’s extant works These Seven Sicknesses and this latest joint project with The Civilians continues this trend. We have to talk about this show, but first you better sit down. . .and watch it.