Thursday, June 30, 2011

Three Very Different Portraits of Family

Jamey Hood as Dot, Emily Walton as Helen, Peter Friedman as Austin Wiggin and Sarah Sokolovic as Betty in “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World.” Photo by Joan Marcus.


familial entanglements – a father’s passion, a daughter’s preoccupation and a couple’s marital peccadilloes – figure in a trio of plays shuttering (3 July) over the Independence Day weekend.

“The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World,” tells two kinds of stories to some extent: a tale of delusional obsessives and a tale of those who conquer the odds stacked against them. The darkly sad musical, at Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, is based on a true story.

In “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World,” Peter Friedman helms a marvelously attuned cast as the tightly wound Austin Wiggin. Austin, a disappointed man who is sure that success is his due, decides to fulfill his dead mother’s prophecy that his girls will save him.

Austin puts all the little he has into turning his daughters Dot (Jamey Hood), Betty (Sarah Sokolovic) and Helen (Emily Walton) into unwilling and unlikely rock stars. Though the girls lack talent and ambition, they go along with their dad’s harebrained schemes out of loyalty and fear. (See video at

Mercifully, the on-stage Shaggs and the score for the musical are far more melodious than the playback from their “recording” session. The real-life Shaggs had a raw, hypnotic sound that was the same monotone in every song on their album. But they unwittingly expressed an existential angst that appealed to an indie following. The play’s title is also that of the Wiggin girls’ one album, which Rolling Stone Magazine anointed as "Comeback Album of the Year" in 1980, about 12 years after it was recorded.

Annie Golden, Sarah Sokolovic, Cory Michael Smith, Jamey Hood, Emily Walton and Kevin Cahoon in “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World.” Photo by Joan Marcus.

The story, score, lyrics and text from Joy Gregory, Gunnar Madsen, and John Langs, whine appropriately with a smalltown New Hampshire drone.

There is a relentless sense in “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World” that tragedy is just around the corner. The drama here, though, is that nothing big ever happens to the Wiggin clan.

A title like “Sex Lives of Our Parents” can portend plenty of drama or not. Alas, it is not the former.

At the center of the play are Virginia’s (Virginia Kull) nightmares about her mother Charlotte’s (Lisa Emery) sexual history. The hallucinations began when Virginia, betrothed to Jeff (Ben Rappaport), sleeps in her childhood room. Is this just a case of cold feet or is Virginia so psychically in tune with her mother that she is able to relive the latter’s wild past?

Charlotte and her husband Christopher (Daniel Jenkins) seem happy, except for occasional bickering, but Virginia imagines them not. She vividly envisions her mother’s checkered past. In Virginia’s dreams – vignettes staged as if they were actually her memories – LE convincingly, even brilliantly portrays Charlotte at 4, as a young teen and as a music student.

Daniel Jenkins, Lisa Emery, Ben Rappaport and Virginia Kull in “Sex Lives of Our Parents.” Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Michael Mitnick’s new play, produced by Second Stage Theatre Uptown at The McGinn/Cazale Theatre, is a love story with a few detours and quirky but appealing characters smoothly portrayed by a strong ensemble. Yet so much more could have been made of this improbable but likable tale.

Unfortunately, “Sex Lives of Our Parents” ends too soon and with a little unconvincing whimper.

In Michael Weller’s “Side Effects,” a couple’s 14-year marriage ends with a bang: by infidelities and political ambitions.

There are many reasons behind the dissolution of any marriage. In "Side Effectss, the husband Hugh Metz (Cotter Smith), once a lively guy, has become a stuffed shirt. The wife Melinda “Lindy” Metz (Joely Richardson) suffers bipolar disorder.

“Side Effects,” an MCC Theater production at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, is the last of a trilogy on “Loving, Longing, Leaving.” It is billed as the other side of the conversation that ended in “Fifty Words” (also produced by MCC) and completely stands on its own. (See video at

Cotter Smith and Joely Richardson in "Side Effects." Photo by Joan Marcus.

Sometimes the argument for ending a union is similar to those for keeping it together. Hugh and Lindy once shared an exciting and adventurous life. Even while their marriage is assaulted by her unpredictability and his sense of responsibility, they still manage to have fun.

JR has many opportunities to cut loose in “Side Effects” and does so with utter subtlety. There are scenes – like the one in which Lindy, giddy with expectation and Hugh, overwrought from managing their lives – that provide clues as to why their marriage is doomed.

In the end, though, “Side Effects” suggests but does not fully reveal the mysteries of what makes a relationship work or fall apart.

Visit http:// to learn more about “The Shaggs: Philosophy of the World;” to learn more about “Sex Lives of Our Parents,” and http:// to learn more about “Side Effects.”

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