nytheatre.com review by Mark DeFrancis
September 22, 2008
After spending so much time at FringeNYC last month, I was looking forward to an old-fashioned, realist ensemble drama, and I'm happy to say that I got just what I wanted form Ensemble Studio Theatre. Close Ties, written by Elizabeth Diggs, is a family drama about three generations of a New York family at their summer home in the Berkshires. Poignant and honest, director Pamela Berlin has brought to life a story which confronts the inevitabilities of age but also the confirms the bonds of family.
The family is a diverse combination of characters all crammed into the single set piece of a kitchen, that classic familial nexus. Here they are forced to deal with many interpersonal squabbles, but the action mainly centers around Josephine Fry, a proud grandmother who is struggling to maintain her independence in the face of her impending senility. Her family, meanwhile, works through their own fears and denial in deciding how best to cope with the deterioration of their matriarch. Close Ties takes great advantage of the fact that families are, in effect, stuck together. Members of a family know each other too well, can say just about anything to each other, but will always have to be together in the end. The script has captured this dynamic perfectly, and the audience can immediately and consistently relate to the tensions and pressures at work in this family.
This sort of realism is always character driven and, while Berlin has sculpted an experience which is certainly worth the trip, there is a disturbing inconsistency in the casting which stands out as the play's only shortcoming. Judith Roberts is a great reason to come out to the theatre, and her portrayal of the indefatigable grandmother shows a rare versatility. She is supported by several colorful performances, including Carole Monferdini's deft portrayal of a guilt-ridden mother trying to keep her family happy. Polly Lee brings warmth and energy to the show as Anna, a mother/aspiring actress, but we keep wishing her character had more of a plot. Julie Fitzpatrick is a pleasant surprise as she plays the studious daughter Connie, who does relatively little until the end, when she delivers a stirring passage which was my favorite of the show. Jack Davidson and David Gelles Hurwitz both do an admirable job bringing their characters to life as Watson, the workaholic father, and Thayer, the exuberant youth, respectively, in a show that doesn't seen very concerned with the male perspective at all. Fiona Gallagher, however, does not seem to have the versatility to cover the misfit daughter Evelyn, while Tommy Schrider, playing her boyfriend Ira, comes off very flat on a stage with so much talent.
Nonetheless, Close Ties is the kind of play that makes you want to call your mother right afterward and tell her you love her. It is a simple example of how theatre can reflect right back on us and bring out the tough subjects that we might otherwise avoid.