Thursday, April 19, 2012

THEATER: You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents' Divorce

Photo/Joan Marcus
In 2009's This Beautiful City, The Civilians turned the lens of their investigative theater on a megachurch in Colorado and cut through religion to capture the essence of a community. In 2010, their In the Footprint cut through the politics surrounding the Atlantic Yards project, and once again, got to the heart of a neighborhood. It's funny how the big things always manage to distill themselves down to a few simple truths, and by that logic, You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents' Divorce should be yet another success. Instead, by reducing their scope to transcribed and edited interviews with each actor's own parent(s) and making do without the musical flourishes of Michael Friedman, their work feels oddly diminutive: too personal, perhaps.

The sample size is so small that the show never takes on a greater significance, only a specific one, and if your parents didn't divorce for legal reasons (a prison sentence for Janet's husband), over an affair (amicably for Socialists John and Frinde and passive-aggressively, like the proudly punitive Beverly), or out of fear (as with Mary Anne), then you're likely to feel underrepresented. Moreover, Anne Kauffman's direction is a little too cozy, what with all the tea-brewing and casual interruptions to "answer" the doorbell or the phone: it doesn't build momentum well, especially when stitching together four different narratives. In fact, the show's eight segments are so consistent in tone that were it not for the super-titles announcing each theme ("How They Met," "Now They're Married," "Now They're Divorced"), you might confuse them.

For the sake of balance, it's also a bit unfortunate that only Matthew Maher gets to present both of his fascinating parents, but I feel as if I could now pick Jennifer R. Morris's mother, Beverly, out of a conversation, and Robbie Collier Sublett does a wry, fine job of presenting his skeptical mother, Janet. Caitlin Miller's perhaps got the hardest subject to portray -- either much was left on the cutting-room floor, or her mother, Mary Anne, is talented at holding back. Or maybe it's just the process of recounting memories that are decades old: though she confesses relief at her ex-husband's eventual death, we're never able to really understand what it must have been like to share a roof with such an unrelentingly angry man. (And that, in itself, is already probably far more reductive than the subjects deserve.)

That said, there's much to be said for the personal stuff the ensemble is bravely displaying -- a sort of living museum that hints at the origins and ends of love. The (tran)script has been lovingly polished by the cast (blemishes and all), and while it's very specific, it's also very sincere. At worst, Tales from My Parents' Divorce will at least encourage children in the audience to call their own divorced parents for a more accurate history lesson; at best, it's an hour spent in the company of charming, distant relatives, here to remind you that we've all got stuff in our lives. And like this show, it'll either work out for you, or it won't.

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