The Happy Family - James Feuer and Sabina Petra. Photo courtesy of DDPR.

The Happy Family – James Feuer and Sabina Petra. Photo courtesy of DDPR.

By Stanford Friedman

On the theatrical spectrum between an intriguing tale of dysfunctional lovers and a frustrating mess, Rosendorf One’s production of The Happy Family unfortunately resides closer to the messy end. And not just because it indeed has a very messy end. There is also a cryptic script, poor staging and some uneven interpretations of unlikable characters with which to contend.

One cannot approach a play entitled The Happy Family without thinking of Tolstoy’s famous line from Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This story, too, revolves around a young woman in a troubled relationship, but that’s about as far as the similarities go. The three couples we’re presented with are essentially living in three different shades of the same sadness. Cornelia (Kailey Prior) is unhappily married to William (Eric Gravez), a shady and angry schemer who apparently deals in the worlds of both art theft and pimping. Cornelia’s mother Margaret (Sabina Petra) and step-father Theodor (James Feuer) also enjoy stealing Picassos, when not at each other’s throats in a matured and vodka-fueled version of marital hatred. Meanwhile, the swinging international couple Elizabeth and Dennis (Petra and Feuer again) generally reside in a state of post-coital bliss, but only because of their penchant for threesomes. How exactly these three couples intertwine is too slowly pieced together over the course of the play, with one angry set piece following another. And the story is not the only thing that leaves us in the dark. The double casting of Petra and Feuer results in several lengthy blackouts, slowing the play’s pace to allow for their costume changes. Ultimately, when the full story is finally revealed, the play collapses into a ridiculously violent non-ending. The audience barely has time to gape at the poorly executed stage combat before realizing the play is over and that the characters are standing there because it’s the curtain call.

The placement of four people around a square table is an age-old blocking dilemma and director Anna Bamberger finds no good solutions here in the scenes that take place in Margaret and Theodor’s home when Cornelia and William come to call. At one point Theodor seats himself feet away from the action. Another scene has Cornelia literally ducking down so as not to hide Margaret as she speaks. Margaret and Theodor seem leashed to the table even when by themselves, with Petra doing all she can to add movement to her scenes, including hopping up on the table. She is able to find some depth in her character, but one wonders what Feuer and company were thinking in creating Theodor. With a bad toupee, plaid pajamas, eyeglasses that are a total distraction and an accent approaching Jerry Lewis in Nutty Professor mode, he is the oddest of threatening husbands. Losing the wig and PJs in favor of a white bathrobe, his portrayal of sexy beast Dennis is much more effective. Ms. Prior perseveres in an underwritten role and Gravez is effectively menacing as William, though he and Theodor both seem to exhibit a linguistic tic of the playwright’s, occasionally bending their syntax, Yoda-style. “Stupid, you are.” snarls Theodor to his wife.

Forewarned, you are.

The Happy Family

Written by Christopher B. Latro, Directed by Anna Bamberger.

WITH: Kailey Prior (Cornelia), Eric Gravez (William), Sabina Petra (Margaret/Elizabeth) and James Feuer (Theodor/Dennis).

Scenic design by Lauren Mills; lighting design by Jamie Roderick; sound design & original music by Sam Godin; costume design Michael Alan Stein; Jack Vendewark, stage manager. Presented by Rosendorf One Productions at the Beckett Theatre, 410 W. 42nd St., 212-239-6200, Through May 6th. Running time: 80 minutes.