If you’ve never hated the family that you also love, stand up.
Now sit down, preferably in some water, because your pants are probably on fire.
Almost all of us have, well, complicated relationships with our families. And ever since Shakespeare wrote Hamlet’s bloody tale of extreme familial dysfunction, playwrights have counted on family drama to tell their stories. At this week’s Hollywood Fringe festival, the family feud is a daily occurrence, with more than a dozen family-based — but not necessarily family-friendly — plays.
Of course, there are only so many ways to squeeze meaning from bickering couples, grumpy grandmas or surly teens, so how does a playwright keep it fresh? Catherine Pelonero, author of Fringe’s Another Effing Family Drama (playing at ArtWorks Theatre) and a frequent theater-goer, was so fed up with staged family dysfunction that she decided she’d rather stay home with her own family than watch a show.
“I would go into a theater and see a living room set, and my heart would sink,” Pelonero says. “I would think, ‘Another effing family drama. So my next title came pretty naturally.”
Setting a first play in the family home, Pelonero asserts, is like the fruit-in-a-bowl still life that everybody draws in Art 101.
“A lot of writers never move past that,” she says.
Pelonero believes she’s transformed the tired family tale with her absurdist Effing. Although the play is set in Buffalo, it seems more like Hooterville in the old TV show Green Acres, with main character June taking Eddie Albert’s place in the lone-voice-of-reason role.
No matter how you twist the family dysfunction storyline, however, the narrative still relies on the conflicts that arise in basic core relationships.
“You’re the worst sister I’ve ever had.” “You’re a wonderful sister,” June’s next-door neighbor tells his sister Holly in the space of five minutes — truly meaning both statements. Sound familiar?
When it comes to crazy-making, there really is no place like home. But with cliches lurking at every keystroke, playwrights get on the family bandwagon at their peril. And yet … the nuclear unit has been a successful foundation for some of theater’s most acclaimed dramas.
Take August: Osage County. The Tracy Letts Broadway hit focused on the family for a full three hours and 20 minutes. But its ring-true treatment of alcoholism, suicide and divorce garnered it the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
As If One Family’s Not Enough
According to a mashup of definitions from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, columnist Erma Bombeck and playwright Dodie Smith, respectively, the essence of family is a “messy, clinging … band of characters … sharing diseases and toothpaste … from whose tentacles we never escape.
It’s bad enough that we’re forever held emotionally hostage by our own families. But most of us also take on a second set of kin, that of our significant other.
In his one-man Christmas in Bakersfield, a Fringe offering showing at Comedy Sportz, Los Angeles actor/comedian Les Kurkendaal regales the audience with tales of the first time he met his boyfriend Mike’s conservative white parents. They were starting to come to terms with their son being gay, but were unaware that Mike’s mate was African American.
“They thought I was this foreign creature,” Kurkendaal says, “but I had my prejudices about them, too, as a wealthy Caucasian family.”
Following a series of cringing Christmastime interactions (including Mike’s father calling Kurkendaal “our black, I mean red! wine drinker” in a family of white-wine lovers), Kurkendaal begins to see their true colors, while they adjust to his. Kurkendaal realizes he’s been accepted after a neighbor tells a racist joke, and Mike’s family rallies around him, calling the neighbor rude and talking of punching him out.
“It was like, ‘We consider you part of the family now — and we take care of our own,” Kurkendaal says.
That kind of redemption can be cathartic and reassuring — and also entertaining. As long as mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers keep screwing up, we won’t see the end of effing family dramas. To paraphrase Tolstoy, happy families are boring.
Another Effing Family Drama, Hollywood Fringe Festival, June 25, 26.
Christmas in Bakersfield, Hollywood Fringe Festival, June 25.