DysFUNCtion can be Funky

Okay, so we all have dysfunctional families. And their doppelgangers have been running rampant, loving and hating one another, as in August–Osage County, or attempting to provide hilarity onstage a la Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You. So enough already!

The latest entry in the “whimsical family” category is a heavy-handed attempt at merriment, but the actors, unfortunately, come off as just trying too hard. It’s a play by Meryl Cohn called Reasons to Live, and it’s a joint production of the Skylight Theatre Company and Open Fist Theatre Company, both of which have a history of presenting well-received plays.

In this one, the central character is The Mother, a high-spirited, self-absorbed ditz who breaks into song at the top of her lungs from time to time to sing out of sync with the singers on her CDs. Played by Judith Scarpone, she does a good job of outbouncing the rest of the cast, as if she were aspiring to be the Auntie Mame of Great Neck, Long Island. She makes the rest of the cast look downright dreary.

The occasion for the family get-together is the scheduled wedding of oldest daughter Jane (Jessica Ires Morris), who, at 43 is marrying for the second time. She appears in her wedding dress to discover that her intended husband doesn’t intend to show up.

Then there is Emily (Amanda Weier), who comes to the wedding with her latest lover, Heather (Jordana Berliner), all huggy and kissy. This is only their second date, but Heather decides that the two of them should get married. (After all, they’ve got the food right there!)

And, rounding out this cozy little group is Andrew (Scott Speiser), Emily’s twin brother. At 33, he lives in his pajamas at his mother’s house and conducts all his clandestine business dealings on the telephone. What he is selling, however, is not drugs.

Andrew is sullen and anti-social until a customer, Tara (Jennifer Schoch), shows up. She is as awkward and shy as he, and watching the two of them get together is the relative high point of the play.

(Apropos of nothing, it’s fun to know that Speiser has performed all over the world as one of the Blue Men in the Blue Man Group.)

And finally there is Helen (Katherine Griffith), an aunt or something, who is presumably on hand to provide comic relief.

Members of the family occasionally drop a Yiddishism into their conversation, and by this you’re supposed to understand that they’re Jewish, although this has nothing to do with anything else in the play. (The rabbi they keep referring to could just as easily be a priest or a minister.) But there is at least one funny ethnic line. As Heather begins a convoluted answer to a speculative question, Emily interrupts to explain, “Most questions don’t require answers if you’re Jewish.”

And so it goes. Susan Morgenstern, who directs this production, is known locally for her work at many of the most respected small theaters in the area. She also co-taught a course in American musical comedy with Tom Lehrer at U.C. Santa Cruz.

Jeff McLaughlin, who designed the set and lighting, is a multiple-award winner. The traditional living room he designed for “Reasons to Live”, however, while pleasant enough and serviceable, is largely underwhelming.

Reasons to Live will continue at the Skylight Theatre, 1816½ N. Vermont Ave. in L.A. on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 and Sundays at 3 through December 14th. Call 213-761-7061 for tickets or visit http://skylighttix.com.

Photo: The Cast, left to right, Heather, Emily, Tara, Andrew, Jane, the Aunt or something, The Mother

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