War in Paramus
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
October 11, 2005
Though the war in Vietnam is raging half a world away, with its attendant disruptions to law and order here at home, the War in Paramus of Barbara Dana's play is contained entirely to the 1970 suburban New Jersey household where it takes place. Here, 15-year-old Thelma Gardner is battling a family that doesn't get her—not because she's a rebellious teen who worships Janis Joplin and tows the anti-Establishment line espoused by her age group and their idols; but rather (and only) because the Gardners are severely dysfunctional. Were it not for a keen survival instinct and plenty of street smarts, Thelma might not have lasted this long.
Here's the sitch: Mom (Violet) is a terminally dissatisfied social climber whose only real affection seems to be for her elder daughter Jennifer and whose attention at the moment is focused alternately on planning Jennifer's upcoming wedding and redecorating the den. Jennifer, five years older than Thelma, is pretty, smart, spoiled, and self-centered. Dad (Bill) is detached, foolish (he walks around the house in his pajamas singing "Who Can I Turn To" in one scene), and emotionally distant and immature.
Thelma is jealous of all the attention Jennifer is getting because of her impending nuptials (shades of The Member of the Wedding, I thought); and acting out in increasingly extravagant ways to try to get some kind of reaction from her (apparently) cold-hearted mother and lunk-headed father. The main action of the play takes place on a particularly eventful night that begins with Jennifer informing her fiancé Kevin that, contrary to previous indications, she does NOT want to move to Cleveland (where he's just made a down payment on a home for them); continues through a forlorn "party" thrown by Thelma for two delinquent pals from high school who are planning to rob a local doughnut store; climaxes comically with Kevin and Jennifer's return home, exhausted and furious after a messy date, after which Jennifer flirts with Thelma's friends and passes out while one of the boys slashes Kevin's arm with his hunting knife; and then crescendos with Thelma's disappearance from the house. When she finally returns, it is with a truly startling revelation that feels wholly out of proportion with the period hijinks that have heretofore occurred in the play.
Playwright Dana has had a distinguished career in the theatre as an actor, and is also the author of several children's books. This is her first play, however, and it shows: though War in Paramus has plenty on its mind and in its heart, it strains credulity continuously, and offers characters who, Thelma excepted, are so calculatedly lacking in generosity of spirit toward one another that they're very hard to spend time with. The male characters, in particular, are so devoid of admirable qualities as to arouse suspicions of misandry on Dana's part; though the heartlessness of Jennifer vis-a-vis both sister and fiancé offers a certain kind of balance.
Despite the knottiness of the script and story, Abingdon Theatre's presentation of War in Paramus is as credible a rendering as I can imagine. Director Austin Pendleton has done a masterful job maintaining suspense and interest, and he's introduced a kind of heightened stylization to the thing in places that makes the play's excesses easier to swallow. He's also assembled a mostly fine cast, led by the remarkable Anne Letscher, who is entirely believable as a troubled teen throughout and has one scene, when Thelma is in hysterics, that is so utterly convincing as to be horrifyingly show-stopping. Matthew Arkin, as Bill, does his best with a role that makes little sense; ditto Jeremy Beiler, who functions mostly as comic relief (very effectively) as schlemiel-like boyfriend Kevin. Lisa McCormick is beautiful as Jennifer, though the role is so underwritten that there's little else for her to do. Only Kate Bushmann disappoints as Thelma's mother, Violet, who I think could be made more complicated and more sympathetic with a reading less superficial than this one. Michael Schweikardt's set and Wade Laboissonniere's costumes confused me with regard to the economic status of the family: the set suggests lower-middle-class (as does the father's apparent failure in business), but the costumes—especially Jennifer's—bespeak a level of chic and sophistication that made me wonder if the family could really afford them.