The Annoyance of Memory

Photo by Ed Krieger/Laguna PlayhouseThere's an obvious similarity between Jon Marans' new Jumping for Joy(which opened last week at Laguna Playhouse) and David Auburn's Proof(part of South Coast Repertory's upcoming 2002-2003 season).

Both plays deal with formidably intelligent, strong-willed women grappling with mental illness and the fathers and siblings in their lives whose duty it is to save, condemn or care for them. But Proof is a play with a mystery so captivating you can't wait for the next thread of evidence; Jumping for Joy, at least in this debut production, is a play so dull you can't wait for it to end.

Jon Marans mixes and matches several of the most tried and true cinematic/theatrical genres of the day in Jumping for Joy. At times, his play is Ordinary People: a poignant look at a fractured family yearning for a renewed sense of community. At others, it's My Big Fat Greek Wedding: a formulaic examination of an eccentric family that—golly gee—still loves one another even though they sure have their wacky differences. There are also elements of “adults returning to their childhood homes to reconnect with their lost innocence” and that reliable chestnut, “oh, why can't I remember why I'm so fucked-up?”

Based on the general lack of humor on the night I saw the show—the laugh lines that fall as flat as Jerry Lewis, the perfunctory physical comedy, the flaccid comic timing—this bittersweet comedy (which, to Marans' credit is far more bitter than sweet) can be labeled one thing: unfunny.

Dad (Allan Miller, in the only performance that is funny in a good way) has just had a heart attack. His schizophrenic but semifunctional daughter, Emily (Deborah Van Valkenburgh), calls her brother, Michael (Daniel Nathan Spector), to the Washington, D.C., area from New York. The family uses his arrival to figure out what to do with Emily when Dad finally dies. She wants to stay in her childhood home; Dad wants her to move to New York with Michael and his family; Michael wants her committed to a home.

Things ebb and ebb, and we slowly begin to realize that Emily may not be as sick as we first thought and that Michael has his own emotional problems. He can't seem to remember much of his childhood, is trapped in a loveless marriage, and desperately wants to reconnect to the joy of his youth and find some renewed sense of self through his family.

That could be interesting, profound, even engaging, but in director Richard Stein's hands, the material is simply overwrought. From the long-winded and portentous musical choices at the beginning of each act and during scene changes (do we really need a fully orchestrated version of Petula Clark's Downtown?)to the histrionic performance he accepts from Van Valkenburgh (we should feel deeply and lovingly for this fragile woman teetering on the edge of insanity; instead, she comes off as a petulant, demanding bitch), there's a general lack of subtlety and craft to the proceedings.

For example, when Emily's taunts provoke Michael to begin strangling her at the breakfast table, Dad invites them both to the kitchen counter to see his letter to the editor printed in the Washington Post. Michael obligingly drags his choking sister to the counter. The moment is darkly funny and depends primarily on physicality to work. But the timing is so off, the sense of comic build so nonexistent and the move so pedestrian, that the moment—which ought to rock the house—comes off as ridiculous.

Such moments make it impossible to care about what's happening onstage or to care enough to invest fully in what Marans might be trying to say with Jumping for Joy. There does seem to be more on the page than in the high-strung, low-intensity production—something about order and place, an idea that manifests itself in several ways. Emily's mind is brilliantly chaotic, but she has a rigorous morning routine (her father pours her cereal, but she pours the milk). Dad's jumbled, overflowing filing system in the refrigerator makes perfect sense to him. There's even an interesting but underdeveloped King Lear-like strand of familial succession, with Emily claiming to need a new tyrant in the home to replace her ailing father but possessing her own imperial—and peculiar—agenda. But because it's so hard to give a shit about this family, any deeper resonance of Marans' play is inaudible.

Give the Laguna Playhouse credit: as it continues to grow more financially stable and nationally recognized, it rolls the dice with new plays and emerging playwrights such as Marans. But with Jumping for Joy, it's unclear whether the Playhouse needs to find better plays or if the playwrights it works with simply deserve better productions.

Jumping for Joy at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-ARTS. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 N 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 N 7 p.m. Through Oct. 6. $42-$48.

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