Straight Faced Lies

Straight Faced Lies, Mark Jason Williams' new play premiering at Planet Connections Theatre Festivity 2013, is about a family Thanksgiving dinner. The word dysfunctional needs to be in that last sentence: it can go in front of "family," "Thanksgiving," or "dinner." Just don't put it in front of "play"—because this work is extremely well written: one of those vivid, larger-than-life, happy-sad tragicomedies where our emotions turn on a dime as the characters battle each other and, more fundamentally, themselves.

It begins in a flower shop on the night before Thanksgiving. James has come in a few minutes before closing to buy flowers for his mom's dinner table. We discover quickly that Kip, the salesman, knows James well. Very well. He wants to see James tonight. James needs to tend to his family. Kip wants to get invited to Thanksgiving dinner tomorrow. James denies that there's anything going on between them.

It's a great scene (you can read it over at Indie Theater Now) and it hooked me immediately. Even though, as we'll discover, it only hints at the drama and trauma and humor that lay ahead, it's the prefect entry into the world of Williams' play.

I don't really want to tell you a whole lot more. This is definitely a piece you'll want to check out for yourself, at the Festivity (through June 22) or online at Indie Theater Now, especially if you're interested in tracing the great American Family Drama from the days of another Williams (Tennessee) through the works of Inge and Albee right up to the more contemporary incarnations of Tracy Letts and Richard Greenberg. This Williams (Mark Jason) spins his tale of archetypal mother, son, daughter, sister, and long-lost father with equal parts compassion, wit, and danger. It's a play where a gun makes a sudden appearance, as do the cops; where booze flows along with vitriol and barely repressed anger and regret; where everybody has a secret or two.

Melissa Skirboll has directed Straight Faced Lies with economy and verve. Her fine cast inhabit their roles intelligently, with perhaps the most purely enjoyable performance coming from Ann Farthing as the widowed aunt Marie and the most purely likable one delivered by Thom Christensen as Joe, boyfriend to daughter Melissa and least embroiled in the complicated bitter politics of this family. As the core family members, Linda Blackstock (Cathy, the mother), Danny Hilt (James, the son), and Hannah Logan Wolfe (Melissa, the daughter) exhibit remarkable chemistry and are able to make each of these folks an individual we can utterly empathize and sympathize with, notwithstanding the stuff we learn about them. As Kip, the man who just wants James to love him, Josh Krebs paints a rich, faceted portrait of possibly deliberately unrequited love.

This will definitely emerge as a highlight of this year's Festivity, and I wish it continued life beyond.