BETTER LIVING (1989)
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Jane Kaczmarek, Ctr: Barbara Tarbuck & Arlen Dean Snyder, Rt: Viiu Spangler



L-R:L Jane Kaczmarek, Barbara Tarbuck & Alexandra Gersten

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Photos by I.C Rapoport

REVIEW:  L.A. WEEKLY, Nov. 17, 1989

"Daddy Dearest"
by Steven Mikulan

Two fathers who don't know best

Like smoke wafting from a burning empire, the scent of decaying family life commands modern playwrights' imaginations. From Eugene O'Neill on, American writers have dissected the psychoses that cause the nuclear family to split apart with destructive energy, often finding parallels to our national political culture. Two productions currently playing on L.A. boards focus on the decline of the American family and the body politic although they view their characters' conditions from radically different perspectives...

George F. Walker may be a Canadian, but his reading of life south of the border is terrifyingly sharp, Better Living begins with Nora, a widow with three adult daughters, digging in the basement to expand the family home. She's fast-talking in that annoying, schizophrenic way that usually marks sitcoms. Soon, however, we realize that Nora's situation, while funny, is not so familiar. It seems that 10 years ago her cop-husband, Tom, took a powder after burning all the family's clothing. That painful memory and the knowledge that Nora and her priest-brother Jack tried to kill Tom has just about scarred over when in walks the husband. Well, not exactly Tom, but rather a similar-looking ex-drinking chum from Tom's years on the road who figures he can impersonate the wandering breadwinner.

While the Tom manque is initially accepted by the real father's daughters, Nora spots the cheat and eventually he admits his impersonation. But he doesn't leave. Instead, he turns the messy, emotionally chaotic household into an efficiently run work camp. His aim is to fortify the exterior of Nora's home with razor wire as she continues her subterranean expansion all the while stocking up on canned foodstuffs. The new Tom is convinced that apocalypse is 'round the corner in the form of "secret armies of confiscation" bands of Third World invaders eager to pillage America. "I am the soldier of the total-shit future," he claims, adding that his plan for Nora's family is "a kind of socialism based on the reality of the place."

The acquiescence of Nora's family to Tom's benign authoritarianism tells us as much about the collaborationist instincts of American political life as did the complicity of the Lomans to Willy's dementia. Nora tolerates it because Tom is a man who gets things done and whom she finds attractive in a deja-vu way. Seventeen-year-old daughter Gail was too young when her father left to really remember him, and at first welcomes the substitute Tom. Mary Ann, the confused middle daughter, seems to go along with the new order because it spells an end to her own emotional turmoil, while lawyer-daughter Elizabeth, at first fiercely defiant, in time recognizes in herself some of the same domineering qualities that define Tom. In all these cases the characters allow misplaced hopes for order and prosperity to paralyze their efforts to lead independent lives. Only Jack, the former man of faith who now believes in nothing, is unmoved by Tom, and it rests upon his shoulders to overthrow the usurper.

In a way, Tom is Willy Loman by other means. Willy constantly babbles about the nurturing past; Tom speaks of a hellish future. Willy subjugates his wife, Linda, by his abruptness; Tom neutralizes Nora through his protective ness. Willy trusts ihe world; Tom is paranoid. Willy is the father who has never really been home for his family; Tom is the dad who never goes away. Despite these differences, when measured against their aims, Willy and Tom arc really flip sides of the same coin; what matters most is their common goal of asserting patriarchal authority over their respective families and that sacred American institution, the Paid-for House.

Better Living, more so than Salesman, defines contemporary America's split self-image, one nominally formed by idealism but more completely defined by compromise and expediency, a political portrait lineated by equivocations and constantly shifting allegiances. Its implications of frightening instability are made all the sharper through Peggy Shannon's careful direction of a fine cast, particularly Arlen Dean Snyder as Tom and Jane Kaczmarek as his nemesis, Elizabeth. Snyder makes his character an amiable, slack-jawed talker who just happens to be capable of remodeling a white middle-class home along the lines of China's corrective May 7 schools. Kaczmareck, for her part, is stunning as the aggressive, almost mannish Elizabeth, whose first instinct is to kill her revenant father the moment he walks in the door. In her scenes with Snyder, the tension is Elektra-fying.


REVIEW:  READER'S GUIDE TO THEATER, Friday, Nov. 3, 1989

Better Living Through On-Stage Chemistry
By Joel Martin Levy

When Joseph Stern produces a play, one can usually count, on at least two things: a script founded on clear intentions and a cast that makes the most of its opportunities. Stern's latest offering meets those expectations and goes beyond. Better living has a limited but definite goal, which is to; make people laugh at fairly serious craziness. This production succeeds because the key creative people involved have understood that objective, did not losei sight of the fact that this play is little deeper than its jokes, and remembered the importance of not being earnest. Director Peggy Shannon and a wonderful cast have saved us from solemnity.

The play, by George F. Walker, concerns a family that has suffered deep emotional traumas and has responded to the pain by coming unhinged. But this is no psychological drama; Walker doesn't aim to analyze or illuminate his characters' problems. The script merely brings together people with serious emotional distress and provokes laughter by emphasizing the bizarre things they say and do.

The action begins with the news that Tom, the husband and father who had violently terrorized the family and was driven away ten years earlier, has come back to town. The news is delivered to Nora, Tom's wife, by her brother. Jack, a disillusioned and cynical priest with a drinking problem. We soon learn that before Tom's departure, Nora and Jack had attempted to kill him. Jack fears detection, while Nora simply dismisses the news of Tom's return, having already converted a fanciful dream she had about his death into a firm belief in his demise.

Nora's loose grip on reality is borne out by her circumstances. Her chaotic house is strewn with boxes of odds and ends and smeared with soil, which Nora has tracked in from her excavation in the back yard. A wild-eyed figure in dirt-spattered raincoat, hat, and muddy rubber boots, she talks with messianic fervor about her digging of an underground room. Although evidently a bit balmy, her motivation is nevertheless touching: a desire to restore the unity of her shattered family. She digs because she is convinced that her daughters will produce offspring and return home and that the house will need more space. It turns out Nora has company in wanting to bring the family together.

Tom, of course, moves in and acts. as the catalyst for a series of developments culminating in the reconstitution of the family as a sort of survivalist commune, preparing for the day when the dark masses will arise from the Third World and try to take America's riches by force. Oh, yes, Tom is a bit warped by fifteen years as a cop, the violence of his family's breakup, and years of roaming in the underdeveloped world. He has returned home to impose his survivalist vision on his family and, by protecting them, to make amends for his earlier brutality.

Each of the three daughters has suffered in her own unique way. Elizabeth is completely absorbed in her career as an aggressive lawyer and is utterly devoted to winning. Mary Ann, who has separated from her husband and left her baby with him, is entirely ineffectual, racked by guilt and worry and unable to make even the simplest decision. Gail, who still lives at home, is a burned-out cynic at seventeen and shows no interest in anything beyond copulation.

Tom's return, and his attempt to impose his will on the family, provokes strong responses from this company of walking wounded. The resulting confrontations are calculated to produce vaguely uneasy laughter.  It is enough to make any actor drool, and Stern has gathered cast members with quite healthy salivary glands, all of whom have fully exploited the possibilities.

Arlen Dean Snyder is a perfect Tom. His half-mad, yet entirely plausible brand of strength and certitude is so charismatic that it justifies the kind of love and hatred he inspires in the other characters. All this guy would need is a bullhorn and a tent, and he could establish a cult. Another delight is Barbara Tarbuck as Nora. She puts the light of the truly inspired in Nora's eyes and doesn't fall into the trap of simply playing a crazy lady. But it is Alexandra Gersten, in the role of the helpless Mary Ann, who generates the most laughs. She is not only funny in the part, but also has a lovable quality, much like Woody Allen in his most popular roles. Appollo Dukakis plays Jack with a nice mix of world-weariness and avuncular sweetness, Jane Kaczmarck is appropriately frenetic as the tightly wound Elizabeth, Glenn Plummer has some funny moments as Gail's boyfriend Junior, and Viiu Spangler plays Gail with a hard edge and just enough intimations of adolescent vulnerability.

Better Living is a funny play, though it lacks true insight and provocativeness. What makes this production so worthwhile is the clarity and unity of creative vision, which is evident in the cast and in the hundreds of individual choices made in the direction and performances. Director Shannon and the entire creative team make it real and funny, avoiding numerous opportunities to indulge other impulses. They must have known that the play would not sustain deeper intentions. They have succeeded masterfully in making Better Living hit its mark.

 

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