nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
June 23, 2006
It is a rare and beautiful gift to hap upon a gripping, powerful play. I did just that with Marc Palmieri's Levittown, a story about the effects of war on one family. Focusing on an ordinary family, Palmieri's play, at the lovely Axis Theatre, is beautifully crafted, psychologically intriguing, and never predictable. It also has the benefit of a fine cast and George Demas's tight direction.
The play starts in 1999. Edmund, an elderly, quiet man, sits in his Levittown house that he bought as a returning GI following World War II. He returned after a blistering attack that killed all his men and left him with a permanent limp and survivor's guilt—a bitter legacy that he passes along to his family. In the house with Edmund are Kathleen, his divorced daughter, and her daughter Colleen, who has recently recovered from bulimia and drug addition. Kathleen's son Kevin soon joins them after dropping out of his third college. He is assigned the attic, where many boxes of letters and other memorabilia are stored. When Kevin arrives, he learns that Colleen is to be married. He is eager to share the good tidings with their father, Richard, with whom Colleen has not spoken in years. What better way to repair their relationship than with good news? Reluctantly, she agrees.
Palmieri draws full characters with distinct personalities, defining their yearnings so they are palpable. Joe Viviani plays Edmund with the sweetness of a storybook grandfather, whose dark reminiscences unfold in flashback, when his family is not around. "Why me?" he remembers asking the nurse in one sequence. The nurse replies gently, "Maybe because God hates you." The conventional and the unexpected mix regularly here,with very fresh results.
Although survivor's guilt is Edmund's legacy, Richard, Kathleen's ex-husband, is the vehicle through which it works. Curzon Dobell imbues Richard with self-pity and malevolence, and manages to convincingly reduce everyone in his presence to dust without raising a finger or his voice. Most of the dialog remains at conversational levels, conveying a happy family, but this is not a happy family and the effect of the words reverberate. Kathleen, who had many fine suitors as a young girl, pursued Richard precisely because he was mean, incorporating the death-wish legacy into her life and subsequently passing it along to the next generation by having children. Cecelia Riddett embraces Kathleen's spiritual pursuits like a drowning person clings to a log.
Brian Barnhart instills his character Kevin with hope, but his hope is based on the past. His only desire is that everyone gets along, and he works toward this goal, propelling the play forward with destructive force. Kevin has no sense of himself outside his family, and Barnhart gives him enough tentativeness and insecurity to make him heartbreaking to watch. He is the last to understand his father, and when he does, he is ready to fully embrace his grandfather's legacy and die. The lesson he learns: "Every time it feels good in my heart, now I know it's wrong"—another Palmieri twist to convention.
As the daughter Colleen, Margo Passalaqua shows how risky it feels to step outside the Levittown circle. She vacillates between the happiness of her impending marriage and the rotten suspicion that it may never happen. Perhaps unwittingly—or maybe in a brave step forward—the man she has chosen for her mate, Brian, offers the chance to break the legacy handed down by her grandfather. Ian Tooley, as Brian, embraces the characteristics of a seemingly ordinary guy, and demonstrates how ordinary can actually be heroic. He wants to be in hotel management, because … well, he loves hotels. What sounds simplistic ends up making sense. Hotels have doormen and, for Brian, that spells safety—something Colleen's family has never known.
Palmieri balances the plot points and the psychological weaknesses of each character, and intensifies all of it by closing each scene with a dramatic question.
Kate Aronsson-Brown designed the clever production: a familiar family room in Edmund's house easily converts into a similar Levittown family room in Richard's house. And, her backlit screen proves a marvelous vehicle for Edmund's war memories. Amy Harper designed effective lighting, most notably in the shadow box that doubles as the living room wall. Steve Fontaine's appropriately innocuous music matches the superficiality of the Levittown homes—a terrific contrast to the turbulence going on inside.
The identical, modest houses in Levittown belie the complicated, psychological angst dwelling inside. Using Levittown as a model, Palmieri reminds us that the dysfunction of this family may be representative of what is happening inside the thousands of other Levittown houses—a scale too mammoth to contemplate, but a concept he understands and articulates powerfully.