The prospect of yet another play about family affairs and turmoil is enough to make most people barricade the living room for another night of television or finally get around to washing the cat.
But consider, for a moment, the countless plays labeled "classic" that chronicle all the hell that breaks loose when two people fall in love, then bring children into the world. The ghost of a murdered father haunts his son. A man who thinks he's king gouges out his eyes upon learning his parents' true identity. A daughter victim to her father's tantrum is denied an inheritance, then comforts him at his direst hour.
Plays about families, it turns out, make up some of the most compelling, least "family-friendly" entertainments we have. It's the biggest beast any playwright or theater director dare tackle.
"(a man enters)," penned by the mother-daughter team of Elaine Jarvik (a former newspaper reporter turned playwright) and Kate Jarvik Birch, does its damndest to dress its tale of family cut short in whimsy and fantasy. It succeeds. True to the nature of families themselves, however, the play can't help but pull you inexorably toward the center of human emotions that must be reckoned with.
The axis spinning 'round it all is Rosie, played firm and astute by Amanda Mahoney. Giddy, nervous but also frustrated that father Peter, a Nobel Prize-winning pioneer of artificial intelligence whom neither she nor brother Milo has seen in 20 years, might show up for his mother's birthday, she is full of unstable sentiments that shift, slide and settle only momentarily in one emotion or another.
Scene after scene spins fantasies of what it might be like to meet her father, played by Terence Goodman. Then, like a contagion, scenarios spill over into the entire cast as the man whose motives they know almost nothing about becomes a playboy and a vampire, but, most of all, a man so smart he's the world's most narcissistic fool. At times references to "artificial intelligence" come a little too fast and furious.
Ex-wife Terry, played by Joyce Cohen, confronts accusations that perhaps she was happy to have her children all to herself. Milo's sex-bomb wife Dana, played by Deena Marie Manzanares, gets hit on by him in a bar, then unleashes her fury. In a dazzling scene pairing Peter with his son, played by Jesse Perry, Milo imagines that his father funds a research lab where computers are forsaken for "experiences of love and transcendence."
"And you think you're this close to a major breakthrough in discovering what love is. What it really is," he tells his father.
At times, "(a man enters)" feels too much like an interlinked set of poignant miniatures than an integral whole. Like the scenery viewed through a window of a lumbering car, it's all fascinating enough by itself, but makes you long for a closer look, more speed, or a combination of both.
At about that juncture, thankfully, Jarvik, Birch and director Alexandra Harbold pull the rug out. After all the fantasy and whimsy, the play congeals into a scene that, by virtue of its seeming reality, becomes the most fantastical of the entire play. With Peter nearing contrition, and Rosie struggling to keep her anger in line with hope, Goodman and Mahoney offer a father-daughter confrontation searing enough to caress the heart with the hardest of truths. The greatest fantasy of all, should people get this close, is a chance at honesty with someone you love.
Only the play's ending, with its cliched prop of a box of chocolates, threatens to offset the impact. But when a play harvests vital drama from the messy institution we call family, it's easy to let some details melt away.
'(a man enters)'
P Salt Lake Acting Company presents the first production of a new play by Elaine Jarvik and Kate Jarvik Birch.
Bottom line • A drama that carves great humor and deft, subtle moments out of the human need for honesty and answers despite a sometimes-limping pulse. Two hours with a 15-minute intermission.
When • Through Dec. 4. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 7:30 p.m.; and Sundays 1 and 6 p.m.
Where • Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.
Info • $15-$38. Call 801-363-7522 or visit http://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org for more information.