Father knows worst

The Good Life

By Jim Barden
Directed by Jeff Dailey
American Theatre of Actors
Non-union production (closed)
Review by John Chatterton

The ATA doesn't get much ink. It is very much a place where rough-hewn work dreams of the light, and as such not one to be frequented by critics looking for a scoop.

Well, you have to start somewhere, and playwright Jim Barden, with his first full-length play, has definitely done that. He has shown that he can create rounded characters, a half-way credible story, tension, and deal with issues of the day in dramatic form, and those are quite enough achievements for one artist to justify moving on to the next production.

The Good Life concerns the woes of the Harley family, whose football-star son (J. P. Lavin, who, if he lacked the build of a football star, certainly showed the devil-may-care grace of someone to whom everything came naturally) counts the days to turning pro. Dad (Dean Negri) idolizes jock son Larry and ignores nebbish son Mark (played with credible understatement by Morgan Demel), who it turns out is gay. Mother Fran (played as the perpetual worry-wart by Irene Wood) tries to mediate between father and sons. Tracie Black capably played a variety of love interests to Larry. David Divita was cute in a walk-on (lie-on?) as Mark's freshman-year lover.

All in all, an earnest production of an earnest play. Perhaps too earnest, as the audience watched Dad retreat from reality before the one-two punch of, first, a son ``turning gay,'' and, second, his beloved jock son getting killed in a car accident with -- as far as anyone knew -- a bimbo. (They were eloping, but that was an irony lost on any of the other characters.)

The action of the play consists of Dad's increasing retreat from reality, to the point where at the end he recruits another father into a fantasy that Larry has, metaphorically at least, been reincarnated in the other man's young son, whom Dad will help train to take the place of the lost son. (At this point Fran walks out on him; end of play.)

Perhaps if the play spent less time in earnest argument for the lost cause of Dad's sanity, there would be more of a sense of underlying conflict. As it is, he is a brick wall at which his family members throw every argument they can think of -- even Larry accepts Mark's gayness and tries to bring Dad around -- only to fail. Dad doesn't exactly develop as a character.

And perhaps there lies the problem with the play. Even Willy Loman, a very similar character, develops, if only in what the audience learns about him in flashback. (And what is more important about a character than what the audience learns about him?) And he has an objective, which he (sort of) attains. Dad lives in a fantasy world from which no one can pull him.

Thankless roles make for difficult performances, and although Negri gave his all as George Harley, he didn't rise above the limited material. But he, and the rest of the cast, remained focused to the end on their unpleasant little world, no doubt to the credit of director Jeff Dailey.

The minimal production values showed an honest effort, sufficient to the project at hand

Box Score:
Writing 1
Directing 2
Acting 2
Set 1
Costumes 1
Lighting/Sound 1
Copyright 1996 John Chatterton

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