The Children of Vonderly is a delightfully full new play from Lloyd Suh that is, more than anything else, playful. Keeping in tone with the upbeat eccentrics of the Vonderly household, Suh redefines normality in every inch of his script, from "anti-semantic" jokes to quirky dismissals of religion and sassy wordplay ("a motherfucker's fucking mother"). Even the few moments that are more repetitious than paralleled are enjoyable: closer to sports replay than sitcom rehash.
The play opens on the seventh and last day of Shiva, the Jewish period of mourning (in this case for the Vonderly's adopting father), a period that has only "amplified the weird." Jerry (William Jackson Harper) carts himself around in a wheelchair and yarmulke, trying to take care of his sweet but mentally-stunted sister, Sasha (Jackie Chung) and his shy, mountainous brother, Abraham (Shawn Randall). Unfortunately for him, it's his grief-stricken mother, Norma (Lynn Cohen), whom he ought to worry for, and after her prolonged, opera-worthy histrionics ("You stupid ingrates, I love you"), another of his adopted brothers, Benjamin (Stephen Jutras), decides to have her committed. Jerry's world, already fragile enough thanks to the glass house set design by Sarah Lambert, grows even shakier when his other siblings, bumbling Noah and weak-boned Georgia (Hoon Lee and Maureen Sebastian), announce their plans to elope. But wait, there's more: as Jerry loses himself in drink, mourning his own realized dreams for traveling with Georgia, Benjamin asserts himself again, hiring a supervisor, Chuck (Paco Tolson), to watch over the house.
For all that plot, the play runs remarkably smooth, and without any degeneration into farce. Instead, it's a comic drama that comes closer to identifying what truly makes a family than most plays I've seen this year. Credit where due to director Ralph B. Pena, who gracefully livens the interludes with breezy music and short, silent essences of scenes in the background (a picnic, a basketball game). The show is also grounded in the phenomenal casting, which keeps the characters from sliding into caricature or stereotype. They're funny, but they're not being handled with kid gloves, and their emotions (the chest-thumping "I love you") are pure.
The Children of Vonderly covers a lot of ground, and everyone involved in this outstanding production keeps up the pace. Ms. Cohen, in her few scenes, manages to be domineering, fragile, and then sweet; Mr. Lee swings from passionate to lost to weepy and back again; and Mr. Harper, stuck playing the stubbornest of the bunch, still manages to make his repetitious arguments sound new, as if he were a Rumpelstiltskin of words, spinning them into gold.
I Can't Believe It's Not Butter might want to tie an ad campaign in with this Ma-Yi production: for a show more than two hours long, it's remarkably spry and effortlessly involved. Not for lack of a better word, but because it's the right word: The Children of Vonderly is fun.