What is it about the '60s that continues to intrigue? Thirty years after the end of that turbulent decade, the watershed events that began with Kennedy's assassination in 1963 and ostensibly ended with the moon landing in 1969 still inform our present with a force that refuses to abate, especially for anyone who came of age during those explosive years.
Kevin Brofsky's Living With Dragons, an ambitious variant of the well-made play, chronicles the decline of a lower-middle-class Boston family in the mid-'60s, with the decade's major events serving as a backdrop to the major events in the protagonists' lives. Beginning in November of 1963, Steven and Rae Marchese are nervously awaiting the results of Steven's X-rays at the same time they are going to contract on their first house. Steven is diagnosed with a rare cancer that eventually brings his uncertain financial stability to a crashing halt, changing forever his family's already shaky dynamics.
Although Brofsky captures the tumultuous feel of that decade of swift social change, he seems to be struggling with the dark and dangerous issues he has decided to tackle. As if he were afraid of what he might find if he were to probe any more than skin deep, he relies on familiar situations and stock characters to tell a convoluted story packed with enough information for an extended TV mini-series. What follows is an unwieldy two hours of expository dialogue that in an effort to cover as many points as possible in a short amount of time lacks clarity, focus, and most surprising, a personal point of view.
Blithely ignoring the crowded dramaturgy, director Craig Rhyne concentrated mainly on the performances of the hard-working ensemble, ensuring terrific characterizations from each member of the cast, especially the extraordinary Sam Stewart as Steven. To watch Stewart progress from the nervous but hopeful man planning a future of suburban bliss to the shattered hopeless shell he becomes was to watch a performer at the top of his craft, infusing the whole evening with a warmth that enhanced the strong points of the material without calling undue attention to its weaknesses.
An actor's director, Rhyne seemed less concerned with the physical aspects of his production. The unit set (uncredited design) was drab to the point of ugliness, and Alexa Kelly's lighting was serviceable if unsubtle, though Patrick Rinn's costumes, if not completely accurate, at least had the flavor of middle-class '60s fashion.
Brofsky is a gifted writer (his recent Stars was a 1999 OOBR Award winner) particularly adept at creating characters of exquisite humanity. If Living With Dragons is not quite up to the level one has come to expect from this gently probing playwright, the simple truths that are his forte do occasionally break through the uncharacteristically timid writing, pointing to the potentially riveting work that will undoubtedly flow from his pen when he trusts his own unique voice to tell his tale from his own unique perspective, as he has done many times before.
(Also featuring JulieHera DeStefano, Mark Wesley Freedman, Alice Gold, Laura Leopard, and Jim Wisniewski.)
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Copyright 1999 Julie Halpern