I attended the opening week Sunday matinee (1/30/11) of CCP’s 3rd installment of their “Make ’em Laugh” season with Mrs K yesterday. Phil Olson’s family seriocomedy, A Nice Family Gathering, was directed by Doug Davis with assistance from Deanna Sweidel. It was produced by Lori Raffel.

The first thing to mention about the play is it’s clever poster design. It mimics the famous Norman Rockwell illustration of the idyllic 1940s family sitting down to the bounty of a traditional American Thanksgiving. The play deals with a family gathering at a current Thanksgiving and is anything but the traditional one which one might expect. Or do we all know better nowadays than to not expect a bit of disfunction in our gatherings?

To me, this satirical mimicry set the tone for the story ahead. Basically, a man comes back from death to ask his youngest son to please tell his wife that he loved her – something he seems to have failed to do while he was alive. The son is not able to carry out this request due to his own resentments about being shunned by the old man. It may not sound like a comedy, but it is – mostly due to the various disfunctions brought to the gathering by the assorted family members: the older son whose world revolves around money, his crybaby wife who is desperate about not being a mom, the younger daughter whose secret life has yet to be revealed, the widow who seems to have trouble with the simplest tasks and a family friend who shows up with suspicious intentions. All these various roles are portrayed by an array of local actors, many of whom I have worked with before. They combine their talents into what I will have to call an uneven effort. There are times when the action is crisp and simply sparkles, and there are moments when the tempo and energy seem to drop, the storyline and jokes take a tumble and we cannot help but wonder what the difference is. I think I may have put my finger on it.

Before I go on let me reinterate my purpose in reviewing my fellow actors and directors in their endeavors.  I mean the comments here written not as criticism but more as an unsolicited teaching. I’m afraid I can’t help myself in this side of me and if it comes off as self-serving or brings the reaction of “how dare he!” I apologize. I try to offer my honest and unbuffed opinion.

It seemed to me that in most of the scenes containing two actors, or on occasion three – the best possible results had been attained. In scenes where three or more had the stage – the action staggered. This was due, I think, to the tempo breaking down, the actors not picking up on cues, and some sort of unsureness I sensed. There could be many reasons for this. It could have been simply that the long week of production work had finally taken it’s toll on a tired cast. It could have been that the Sunday audience was not as vocal as the previous night or nights and the sluggishness was where laughs had been expected. It could have been that the director had missed out on shaping the scenes that contained the larger groups of actors. Whatever the cause, the show I saw Sunday was uneven and dull-edged in places. Given all this, I may say in spite of it, the emotional punch at the end was hard and true and the play felt satisfying when finished.

It’s not that the actors didn’t do a good job. Clay Mabbitt, who played Carl, the younger son, was simply fantastic. This was the first time I had seen him onstage, and if my information is correct, this was his first turn at a role in a non-musical. Mabbitt’s choices in reactions and in his readings of lines were the most correct of all the cast and he is to be commended. He totally understood his character at every moment and gave a wonderful performance. And he had fun with his role. I was very impressed.

Veteran actors Will Pullins and Jean Adams played the departed dad and widowed mother in the family. Their immense experience showed as they gave solid, although at times, uninspired performances. These were not gaps so much as merely the unevenness I sensed. Again, they pulled it all together for the emotional ending and left me feeling good about their overall performances. These two are the type of seasoned actors one can always count on to deliver in the end – and they did.

My good friend, Lacy Marie Meyer (who played Izzy in my production of Rabbit Hole last season) was cast as the youngest daughter, Stacy. Most of her acting choices worked well enough, but she was most often in the more populated scenes and I thought much of what she chose to do was lost or off-timed and she seemed to always be playing in the outer edge of scenes. I also wished she had found a way or been directed to be more varied in her actions and expressions. The trouble is I know what she can do and I did not see her do it.

Catherine Nading, appearing in her second show of the season, did a credible job with all that her character, the oft-hysterical daughter-in-law Jill, needed to do. Nading is very at ease on stage. She seems capable of a wide range of roles and handled the choices for the hysteria and inter-action with her “relatives” well.

Michael Green played the older son, Michael. He certainly was a good casting choice in terms of his look and his age. But I noticed Green has a certain thing he does that is often distracting. When he has a line which is going to be funny or that he seems to enjoy delivering, he gets a smirk on his face before and as he delivers the line. The smirk doesn’t always play well with regards to the emotion of the moment. It might  be the type of thing he is not even aware he is doing, but it is there, repeatedly. Sometimes just making an actor aware of a thing like this is enough to make him conscious of it and begin to change it. I really hope this is the case. While there is nothing wrong with enjoying yourself up on stage, the sense of the line can be ruined by a misplaced look.

Last, but never least is Mark Tumey, who played the family friend, Jerry. Again, here is a solid, experienced actor, whom I have seen be spectacular on stage (see my review of Guys and Dolls on this blog), who seemed to be uninspired in this performance. Granted, Jerry is a laid-back sort of guy, but Tumey’s portrayal fit right in with the qualities I wrote of before. I wished Jerry could have a spark of energy and intent at times so that the audience could see what the other characters think him to be. This characteristic seems to be played down instead of acted out.

Again, maybe the usual spark was missing the day I saw it or maybe this was just the “off'” show of the run – which often does happen. A director can only control so much of what occurs in a performance. But the fact that I saw crisp, energetic two person scenes and badly paced, off-timed multi-person scenes leads me to believe something was missed. Maybe it was just a matter of drilling the cues for the busier scenes. I will note that I did sometimes have the feeling that laughs were missing and that that was the problem.

Otherwise, the set by John Sampson worked very well, including the tricky outdoor area for the many outside scenes. Props and costumes were appropriate and Jim Lucas never missed a beat on the lights and sound. And seeing a show in CCP’s Clay Terrace venue is always comfortable and affordable (especially at the “pay what you want” performance which is the first Sunday show).

As I mentioned before – I left the theatre satisfied emotionally. I teared up, my neighbor in the audience teared up. A lady I don’t know was overheard saying she never cries at live shows, but did at this one. This is not a bad show by any means – I laughed, I enjoyed performances, it is well-written and there are plenty of great lines. But there is room to grow and I hope audience members will venture out and see this cast do just that.

Performances continue for one final week: Thursday thru Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2:30pm. Call 815-9387 for reservations or go online to www.carmelplayers.org . Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for students and seniors (62+). Second Thursday tickets for students are offered for $8. Second Sunday tickets for seniors are offered for $10.

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