SHEPHERDSTOWN, West Virginia, July 22, 2015 – The Contemporary American Theater Festival tends to choose dramas that focus on serious things, and that’s appropriate, given that in American culture these days, the certain certainties seem to have gone away. But there’s a ray of comic hope in CATF’s 2015 edition, and it’s called, oddly enough, “The Full Catastrophe.”
Michael Weller’s world premiere comedy charts the misadventures of Jeremy Cook (Tom Coiner), a renowned but currently jobless professor of linguistics. Desperate for a bit of income, Cook agrees to serve as a live-in “marriage counselor” for a troubled couple, Beth and Dan Wilson (Helen Anker and Cary Donaldson). The story line of the play is based on a novel by David Carkeet.
Jeremy will be more than adequately compensated by brusque, no-nonsense businessman Roy Pillow (Lee Sellars) who’s employing him to try out Pillow’s soon-to-be-famous course for repairing marital unions that have hit the rocks.
Everything’s good to go, but there’s a minor problem to which no one initially pays much heed: “Counselor” Jeremy has never been married himself. Worse still: Beth reminds him of Paula, the girl that got away from him many years ago. As they say in a standard play synopsis: Complications ensue.
In this “Catastrophe,” however, those complications are funnier, sadder and a lot truer than you’ll see on network TV sitcoms. Weller provides enough expected and unexpected twists and turns to keep the audience guessing all evening. Plus, there’s that wild-card part of “Everyone Else,” a series of minor characters all portrayed by T. Ryder Smith that adds a special element to the mix. But we’ll get back to that in a moment.
When it comes to the age-old topic of marriage, that famous quote from Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” always seems to come to mind; namely, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That famous Russian novelist’s famous observation proves true for the family of Beth and Paul Wilson.
Married long enough to enter the familiar territory of the bored and alienated couple, Beth and Paul also have to put up with their precocious but equally bored young son Robbie (Sam Shunney), who ingeniously manages to scope out what’s going on in both his parents’ lives and that of the family’s purportedly expert, live-in marriage counselor, Jeremy Cook.
Robbie complicates Cook’s work considerably, although Cook is often his own worst enemy. Absent-minded to a fault like many decent professors often are, he either ignores or misinterprets Roy Pillow’s “sure-fire” scripted counseling and investigative outlines, infuriating Pillow and completely confusing the couple he’s allegedly attempting to help.
Worse still, how about Jeremy’s own problems. We hear these days about “emotional triggers.” Too bad for Jeremy that Beth Wilson very much reminds Jeremy of a devoted grad student he once courted and then ignored, ultimately losing her forever when in fact, he really cared.
A little bit of psychological displacement adds further needless complications as Jeremy finds himself falling in love with Beth, triggering fond and sad memories of Laura (also played by Helen Anker), the girl he left behind but didn’t mean to.
Weller’s situations, human interactions, dangling conversations and superficial smiles all ring true in this drama. This will prove particularly true for those in the audience who are currently or have been formerly involved in one or more marriages—a verifiable fact to which this critic, a 44-year veteran of (mostly) married bliss, can readily attest.
Weller gets both the rights and the wrongs of Marriage 2015 amazingly right. As a result, the audience ends up not only identifying with the Wilsons, but also cheering for them to pull their marriage out of the family barbecue pit—Jeremy Cook, Roy Pillow, son Robbie and Beth’s good-for-nothing brother (also played by T. Ryder Smith) notwithstanding.
Unusual touches in Weller’s play are worth noting, too, namely the essential good natures of the major characters—or most of them—as well as the surprisingly old-fashioned morality and ethics that serve as bedrock for his story. In a time when even common decency seems to be under public attack and ridicule, this is a refreshing attitude on the part of a playwright, and maybe even a brave one.
The acting in “Full Catastrophe” is considerably above average. Tom Coiner’s confused and confusing character, the central intelligence of the play, is the very essence of the contemporary, disconnected academic. That said, he’s also grounded, via his field of linguistics, in ways that many professors are not, particularly in his appreciation of the nuances of the language. This, plus his fumbling but often well-intentioned goofiness toward women—even those he loves and/or admires—is typical and refreshingly honest.
Likewise, although each experiences his or her irrationally idiotic moments, Beth and Dan are a typical, youngish, 7-year-itch kind of couple who’ve hit a brick wall, are considering starting all over again, perhaps with someone else. But deep down, we know they really don’t want to split. They just don’t know how to get out of the black hole they’ve been digging for their relationship. And the antics of their brainy but devious son—who actually is just as scared as they are—don’t seem to be helping.
Helen Anker and Cary Donaldson provide just the right touches here to make us care about their characters. That’s essential to a successful, final resolution of this play, which alternates enough predictable moments and enough surprises to keep everyone guessing until very near its end.
Lee Sellars provides the perfect helping amount of bluster and greed to make Roy Pillow, Type-A business guru extraordinaire, a believable, scary and funny antagonist. It’s as if this veteran actor shoce to channel his inner Donald Trump during rehearsals. The Donald’s sweeping, know-it-all pronouncements on all aspects of life also seem to be the kind of natural expression Roy Pillow would embrace.
Sellars anchors this complicated tale, lightening the action with a comically heavy-handed touch that proves, in the finale, to be an unexpected delight. So who gets fired? You’ll have to see the play to find out.
Sam Shunney portrays the Wilsons’ son Robbie as the kind of good but cynical kid we all either know or endure. He’s a frustrating combination of smart, smart-ass, worldly and naïve. He’s the kind of kid who can frustrate adults by effortlessly turning their iPhones into supercomputers and using the Internet to nose around wherever you don’t want him to go.
But Shunney’s Robbie is also secretly frightened that his parents might split, causing his comfortable world to collapse and leaving him perilously vulnerable—a fact he does his best to hide. It’s a great interpretative performance for this young actor.
Last but in no ways least is T. Ryder Carter who, as we’ve already noted, plays “Everybody Else.” From a curt female receptionist, to Dan Wilson’s good-for-nothing, meddling brother-in-law, to another surprise or two in between, Carter gets to portray every manner of annoying walk-on nut-case. He even manages to add a piquant dash of gender-bending fun to the proceedings—this at a time when loose lips can sink career ships as no less than comedian Jerry Seinfeld has duly noted.
Ongoing subversiveness is great fun and is actually the very essence of comedy. Carter has fun pulling it off, and the audience has even more fun watching how things unfold in its aftermath.
Weller’s carnival of sometimes badly mismatched souls is presided over by Ed Herendeen, who directs this production. He keeps his cast focused, and maintains a steady, brisk pace, a key element keeping this almost farcical style of comedy on the move and in your face. Yet Herendeen also manages to help the cast remain in character without resorting to caricature. Without that kind of subtle grounding, we’d find this whole, crazy menagerie hard to believe.
Michael Weller’s “The Full Catastrophe” may not prove to be the immortal comic classic of its time. But, in its honesty, audience friendliness and warmth, and refreshing lack of snideness and cynicism, it succeeds as a bright comedy drama that captures the moral confusion of our age and offers a hopeful antidote.
Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)
“The Full Catastrophe” by Michael Weller continues its run at CATF’s Marinoff Theater through August 2. For dates, times and directions to Shepherdstown, West Virginia, visit the official CATF web site.
For an overview of CATF 2015, check out our CDN preview article here.