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Life Among The Natives

nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
May 16, 2010

The sight of a woman stretched out on her back down the center of a dinner table is what greets the audience upon entering the house for Life Among the Natives, Milk Can Theatre Company's new play by ML Kinney. This supine lady is the Native family's grandmother, who prefers to be called "Tinkerbell" and talks freely about the significance of Elvis Presley on her sex life. She is only the first of many in this play to sit, lie, or walk on the dinner table that prominently takes up the center of the stage. The other members of this household include Azalea Native, the Mom, a fierce Big Game Huntress and prolific author who shoots her gun around the house and prefers to talk about her family as a "tribe." There is Richard Native, the Dad, who is running for the Massachusetts State Assembly dressed as a woman as a message for "change." There's Lulu Native, the kid sister who acts as if she's already a military veteran, curses a lot and plants landmines in the backyard. There is also the adopted brother, "Adam the Monkey Boy," whom Azalea brought home from a hunting expedition. The final member of the family is Jewel Native, an accountant, who seems to be the only sane person in the household and wants nothing more than to be "normal." To her horror, her lover Amanda shows up to her home uninvited for dinner, and insists on meeting the family.

Sure, this eccentricity makes for a lot of zany comedy, but this is a play about love and family. Jewel is so uncomfortable with her crazy family that she assumes they'll never understand her. She'd rather just run away with Amanda and avoid them all. Amanda, who has lost all of her family, tries to make Jewel see how lucky she is to be surrounded by such colorful relations who are so ready to accept her if she'd only let them in.

For the most part, the play works. The actors are all very funny and fill out their colorful roles with great gusto. The direction (by Julie Fei-Fan Balzer) is very clear, bold, and keeps everything moving swiftly. But I had issues with some of the writing choices by ML Kinney. I didn't really buy the writing for the role of Amanda. At first she's a little freaked out by the complete zoo of a family she is unexpectedly faced with, but within just an improbably few minutes, she seems to fall in love with them and find them all serenely wonderful. I mean, we're talking about an obscenely rude teenager who builds bombs for fun and a monkey-boy in a loin cloth jumping all over the dinner table. Then (about five minutes after the introductions) Amanda immediately demands that the discomfited Jewel come out to her family about her sexuality, and insists that she do it that very evening. This felt rushed and forced. I also felt banged over the head with the fact that the play is about love. Amanda and Jewel vow their love to each other multiple times in every scene they have. Each member of the family has a scene with Amanda where they talk about how much they love Jewel and how important love and family is to them. Each couple in this play spends a lot of time passionately lip-locked.

But the play is still a lot of fun. In fact, I both laughed and cried. I got a good gnawing guilt trip about keeping my parents at a distance. I tried to call my Grandmother on my way out of the theatre. I also got to hear some pretty unforgettable lines and got treated to some hilariously comic images. And in the end I took heart that as crazy as my own family seems at times, it still has nothing on the Natives.