Every playwright knows at least one version of Anton Chekov’s famous rule on foreshadowing.
“If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there,” the most famous of all Russian playwrights once wrote.
Utah playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett keeps that advice deep at the subconscious level in the plot of “A Night with the Family,” his first foray into comedy after years of writing earnest drama. But this being a comedy about family during the holidays, it’s employed more as dramatic shadow-dancing than mere foreshadowing.
Lane Richins, who directs Pygmalion Theatre Company’s Utah premiere of Bennett’s play, learned that fast during rehearsals.
“If there’s a sword that can be drawn, it will be. If there’s a skewer to be thrust, it will be. If there’s a cake that can be employed, it will be,” Richins said. “It’s great fun to play with extremes that way.”
Bennett’s play first premiered April 19 at the Omaha Community Playhouse, where the local press drew comparisons to George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1960s comedy classic “You Can’t Take It With You.” As in that play, which Bennett admitted to having seen several times, familial madness pivots around a stable daughter.
But unlike, Kaufman and Hart’s drama, Bennett doesn’t contrast his fictional family’s madness against any other family. In fact, he doesn’t even give them last names. So as son Donny, father Donald, daughter Bree, Donald’s ex-wife Diane and her French-Canadian boyfriend Antoine banter and barter, the dialogue weaves a chaos so hilarious it becomes disturbingly familiar.
In press materials, Bennett said the most vital realization informing his comedy came during a performance of James Sherman’s “Beau Jest.”
“It was the first time, I think, that I sat in the audience and actually thought about the emotional justification behind some ridiculous situation: a woman wants to be accepted by her family,” Bennett said. “Realizing this, I saw that comedy is ultimately just a point of view. It isn’t about laughing or crying—characters in comedies cry all the time. Comedy is about having a perspective on life that lets you relax instead of tense up.”
There are, of course, a wealth of elements unique enough for Bennett to call them his own. They’re poured into living, in-fighting characters portrayed by some of the best names in Utah acting. Yearning for stability in reaction to her own family’s unmoored history Bree, played by Elise Groves, is a convert to Mormonism. Donald, played by Andrew Maizner, is the classic archetype of cable-TV documentaries, a hoarder of curious objects—including a six-foot Scottish claymore—that litter the stage. Donny, played by Jay Perry, is prone to panic attacks only a smoothie and other odd antidotes might cure. Ex-wife Diane, played by Teresa Sanderson, is the pushy mother who cares, but never takes hints on wearing out her welcome. Antoine, always with accent at the ready, is played by Jesse Peery.
Perry said Bennett’s comedy is so full of rhythm that rehearsing it from beginning to end is almost like a journey through farcical symphony. And the set? “It’s wild, woolly, boxy and stained around the edges,” he said.
“This is a family that, while driving out their own demons, also tries to work together to find the answers they can only get from each other,” Perry said. “That’s they’re way of loving each other, even if they rarely get along. For two acts, you’re basically playing a rock concert with different family members trying to lead the band.”
‘A Night with the Family’
When • April 25-May 11. Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. with a Saturday matinee May 11 at 2 p.m.
Where • Rose Wagner Theatre, at Rose Wagner Center for the Arts, 158 Broadway, Salt Lake City.
Tickets • $20. Recommended for mature audiences 17 years of age and older. Call 801-355-ARTS or visit www.arttix.org for more information.