BWW Reviews: YOUR FAMILY SUCKS - A Brilliant and Darkly Humorous Examination of Game Show Culture
Before reality TV ruled the primetime airwaves, game shows were all the rage. It seemed that everyone you talked to wanted to compete on The Price is Right, Family Feud, Wheel of Fortune, or Jeopardy. Game show culture is still alive and well in American society, with people wanting to be on Minute to Win It and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader, but most people long to be a character on The Bachelor, Big Brother, or Survivor.
Yet, the world premiere of Abby Koenig's YOUR FAMILY SUCKS being produced by Horse Head Theatre Company is taking us back to the hey-day of Game Show Culture and using it to explore the functionally dysfunctional modern American family. With a wit and schema for creating characters that is reminiscent of Pulitzer Prize Winning writer David Lindsay-Abaire, Abby Koenig's Taubin family is strikingly realistic, hilarious, and heartbreaking all at the same time.
Molly Taubin wants the family to be on Your Family Sucks, a show she hates, because she saw an interview with Ronnie Horowitz, the original Heb-Pop (Hebrew-Pop) Star where he claimed to love the show. Molly thinks if she can profess her love for Ronnie Horowitz on air that he will take her away from her family, marry her, and live with her on his ranch. Despite constantly bickering with her sister, Molly convinces Annie to help persuade their parents to allow them to compete. The plot examines both girls' struggles within and outside of their family and the way that flash-in-the-pan celebrity may affect them. After all, Your Family Sucks is the American pastime of The Common man!
Direction by Kevin Jones and Ivy Castle keeps the two-hour one act play moving at a decent pace. The middle drags a bit, but the play rights itself for its finale. I did find myself wishing that an intermission had been included in the middle portion of the show. The characters and plot were vastly engrossing, but two hours is a long time to sit in a metal folding chair. Despite this, no character seems inappropriately played and each one maintains a tangible aura of believability from beginning to end. As if the two lead actresses were not relatable enough, the schoolyard scene with them and their peers ensures that audience will not only believe that these characters are real people but also have empathy and sympathy for their individual journeys.
Also, Abby Koenig's script along with Kevin Jones and Ivy Castle's direction utilizes audience participation. This trick really engages the audience in the production and makes them truly connect with the piece. Audience participation, in all honesty, becomes almost like a character itself, which is supremely fun!
Caroline Menefee as Annie Taubin is fantastic. She commands the stage and makes the audience love her and empathize with her. As a high school aged teenager she is lost in a journey of self-discovery, which makes her all the more relatable. The audience's heart breaks when she has to forfeit an afternoon at school to go home and help her manic-depressive mother dye her hair. It is the realization that Annie is more mature than either of her parents that tinges this comedy with depressing undertones, which are masterfully brought out and played by Caroline Menefee. Striving to keep her parents happy. Her grades up, and discover herself, her struggles seem the hardest and Caroline Menefee breathes fantastic life into the character, making the audience believe in Annie's dreams and hopes as much as she does.
Molly Taubin, played by Reagan Lukefahr, is pretty but dumb. She is supposedly the exact foil to her sister; however, Caroline Menefee is too pretty in the show to play ugly. Thus, the ugly/pretty debate comes down to hair color and clothing style. Reagan Lukefahr does an excellent job portraying the pretty mean girl and the girl with an unhealthy obsession with a celebrity. In the schoolyard scene, her doses of indirect aggression against her sister and sister's friend are delightfully mean and completely realistic, showcasing another place where the writing and direction resplendently present real people to the audience.
Abby Thompson's Nicole Mariano is a fully realized portrait of childhood tragedy. She is constantly coming over to the Taubin household because her parents are never home, which is a sad reminder of how uninvolved many parents are in their children's lives these days. Like Caroline Menefee's Annie, Abby Thompson's Nicole is a sage and wise character, especially for her age. Her scene with Annie shows how insightfully keen both the girls are, and is one of the deepest moments in the play.
Joseph Taubin, as played by Greg Dean, comes across as a paranoid conspiracy theorist with a great passion for scotch, who also dreams of writing a novel. Greg Dean shines in his game show dream sequence and his critically deep discussions of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath made my English-major heart gleeful.
Melanie Martin's bi-polar Elaine Taubin is exquisitely all over the place. She returns from a daylong trip to the grocery store with scores of Cherry Coke Zero cans and bottles and a can of Chocolate Frosting. Later, she purchases a multitude of hair dye boxes, unable to settle on just one color. Her emotions change on a dime and everyone must interact with her extremely carefully or risk sending her off the deep end. Melanie martin plays the character with a pristine understanding of manic highs and depressive lows, breathing realistic life into the role.
Playing Hebrew-Pop sensation Ronnie Horowitz, Matt Hune is a pompous revelation of teen idolatry. His character is more caricature than anything else, which keeps his portrayal humorous. While on stage, he is a figment of Molly's imagination, entering and exiting from the poster in her bedroom. This tactic is reminiscent of Sam coming in and out of Clarissa Darling's window on Clarissa Explains It All, which is a very nice touch all things considered.
Chet, the game show host, played by Ty Mahany is a fun caricature of the TV slime ball. His veneer is family friendly Marc Summers. But when the audience gets a few glimpses into his real personality, he is nothing more than a conscious-less used car salesman.
Ashleigh Patridge, Kara Ray, Steve Bullitt, Lyndsay Sweeney, Andie Popova, Brandon Connor, and Allison Jones round out the rest of the talented cast. Each does a fantastic job with their assigned roles. Standouts are Lyndsay Sweeney's over-exaggerated and peppy Mrs. Franco and Ashleigh Partidge's eye-opening, sensual Rita that helps Annie discover her true self. Another highlight is seeing Buzz Bellmont's on screen cameo as the person who interviews Ronnie Horowitz.
Kevin Holden and Frank Vela's Set Design is remarkable. The stage is two large squares set diagonally from each other. One square is the game show stage and the other is the Taubin household. This effect allows for an interesting and immersive seating arrangement. It also cleverly allows them to use the large space without having to worry about set changes.
Lighting Design by Kevin Holden is perfectly game show when needed, with moving spots and flashing colors. The light design is simply nimble and smart.
David Painter's Sound Design utilizes game show sound effects and theme music perfectly. The songs created and recorded for the show are extremely funny and border on the tasteless, making them all the more enjoyable. The audience rolled hearing Ronnie sing "Concentration Camp of Love." Kudos must be given to the writer of the original music!
YOUR FAMILY SUCKS is a brilliant new play that is a lot of fun to watch and be a part of. I was selected to be on stage at the beginning of the show, but I feel that I would have still felt a part of the show even if I hadn't been pulled up on stage. I really enjoyed myself at YOUR FAMILY SUCKS. With cerebral, intellectual jokes and healthy doses of realistic people living in realistic situations, Abby Koenig has truly created a family that is strikingly similar to all American families. YOUR FAMILY SUCKS is purely an enjoyable evening of theatre that tickles your grey matter as much as it does your ribs.
YOUR FAMILY SUCKS runs through December 22, 2012 at War'Hous Visual Studios at 4715 Main Street. For more information and tickets, visit www.horseheadtheatre.org or call (713) 364 – 4482.
As parking at War'Hous Visual Studios is tricky, arrive early to get a spot behind the building. If you can't park there, you can speak to the manager at the Wendy's and pay a $5 donation to a charity to park at Wendy's. Or you can park a couple blocks away at the Lawndale Art Center (4912 Mains Street) for free. Another thing to bear in mind is that there is not a central air system in the performance venue. Bodies and stage lights make the area pretty warm, so dress accordingly or make sure you have enough cash to buy cold sodas and beers from the bar.Photo by Darci McFerran. Promotional Poster and Photo courtesy of Horse Head Theatre Company.
L to R: Melanie Martin, Reagan Elizabeth, Matt Hune, Greg Dean, and Caroline Menefee