Family Affair

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A scathing glimpse of the American family from a writer known for lighter fare

While the form of “Roulette,” the new play by Paul Weitz opening this week at The John Houseman, is a traditional fourth wall domestic comedy, what is going on within those four walls is anything but traditional.

Weitz, also known as the co-writer of “Antz” and “About a Boy” and as a film director (“About a Boy” and “American Pie”) turns his wry and iconoclastic eye on the American family. In this case, it’s a very contemporary family, experiencing all the dysfunction, disconnection, and distress of people who share the same roof but who are revolving in different orbits.

The play is a fast-paced comedy of contemporary manners in which six completely self-absorbed people collide with one another as they bumble through their lives, and these various collisions are, for them, what pass for relationships. The net effect is an absurdist satire that could only exist in a world where, as has recently been reported in various news outlets, parents and children communicate via instant messages from different parts of the house, saying that doing so makes communication among them less stressful.

In Weitz’s nuclear (as in, ready to explode) family, a husband can begin each day putting a gun to his head playing Russian roulette, a daughter can guzzle scotch before school, a son can be borderline schizophrenic, and the wife can be alcoholic—and everyone can pretend that this is perfectly normal. On a more subtle level, the play provides a fairly searing condemnation of our contemporary culture in which the incessant and strident talk about defending marriage and the traditional heterosexual family stands in stark counterpoint to the grim reality of what those families are.

This theme of what family means is nothing particularly new in American literature. It’s a theme that has occupied such writers as Theodore Dreiser, Edward Albee, and Thornton Wilder, but Weitz takes it on in a fresh, new way suffused with a combination of anger and irony, two of the defining elements of contemporary culture.

Trip Cullman, who directs the play, said that he thinks it is “the evil stepson” of Weitz’s movie “About a Boy.”

“That story is about a guy who eschews any close relationships, about disaffected people and how they find each other and create a family for one another,” Cullman said. “[‘Roulette’] is about how the notion of family itself is an abstract notion.

“Everyone [in the play] is trying to maintain the veneer of the fact that ‘We’re the perfect family,’ and everyone is falling apart. Each character is pursuing his or her own selfish desire and no one is really taking responsibility for one another, which is part of the contract of a family.”

In such a situation, Cullman said, labels can be misleading. The mother in the play, Enid, has the label of mother, but that doesn’t mean she is maternal. And, in a sense, because she does not live up to what she construes the label to mean, she is essentially lost.

Cullman added that the play is very much about playing roles, but there is danger in that approach to life.

“In playing roles, we’re not clued into who we really are, what we want or what we need for ourselves,” he said.

Cullman said that when people perceive what they want for themselves, they sometimes feel restricted by the responsibilities they’ve created with respect to the other people in their lives. “Roulette” looks at what happens—and the emotional chaos that ensues—when people think only of themselves and their needs. “Initially, the characters are all so busy trying to make themselves happy that they forget about and ignore each other,” Cullman explained. “In the healthiest of circumstances, we find a balance between what makes us happy and the responsibilities we have to others in our lives.”

Of course, doing that successfully requires giving up a little bit of control, and control is another of the themes of the play, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative. The father who plays Russian roulette is at once trying to control something that is fundamental about his own life—risking whether he will live or not—and completely out of control, yet none of the people who are supposedly the closest to him in the world can see it. Russian roulette is not a game that is generally considered an attractive pastime among the more rational individuals among us.

Cullman said that underlying all of this is the despair and loneliness that we feel when we are disconnected. The need to be connected to others, he argued, whether in a biological family or the family of one’s own making, is a universal theme and a universal concern, particularly in today’s culture. He added that it is a theme that has special relevance to gay audiences, giving the example of a gay kid coming out who has been “dropped into” a family by chance, “but in many instances the family becomes way more destructive.” It becomes the responsibility of the individual, then, to go out and find a support network, in effect to build the family that the accidents of biology might have deprived one of.

Cullman is excited about the production and the cast, which features Larry Bryggman, Anna Paquin, Shawn Hatosy, Leslie Lyles, Anna Gasteyer, and Mark Setlock, though he admitted the darkness of the play might disenchant some.

“Paul’s other work has been very commercial, and this is something very different. It’s edgy and not so easy to digest,” Cullman said.

Amazingly, Off Broadway audiences may be stronger than they get credit for. Audiences in previews have been enthusiastic, and at the performance I saw the absurdity and incisiveness of the satire had the audience roaring in delight—and perhaps some recognition. Then again, the best comedy always stings a little bit when it comes close to the truth. In that case, “Roulette” sounds like a perfect family outing, don’t you think?

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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