The Family Room
nytheatre.com review by Michael Mraz
October 1, 2011
"Shrinks talking to shrinks talking to shrinks, it never fixes anything," laments David, the troubled son of two therapists. While I'm pretty sure that I paraphrased that line slightly, it expresses the idea that Aron Eli Coleite's new play The Family Room, imported from a premiere in Santa Monica, California, and making its NYC debut at the Arclight Theater, seeks to explore. Full of strongly developed, fascinatingly flawed characters, Ethos Performing Arts' production provides a tense, darkly comic portrait of the people we rely on to help sort out our problems, and shows that they're at as much of a loss handling their own lives as we are.
David is a 15 year-old who seems to be spiraling out of control. His parents, Dr. Campbell (dad) and Dr. Tate-Campbell (mom), are at a loss of how to deal with him, and they want to send him to therapy. But it seems the problem between the two therapists and their son is an inability to stop treating him as one of their patients and start treating him like their son. Every disciplinary move they make with him is a textbook psychological chess game, and the more they do it the more they push him away. David is disillusioned with his parents' profession. At the center of his difficulty, is that his parents also have to talk to shrinks, as a requirement to keep their licenses, and those shrinks also have to talk to other shrinks for the same reason; and nobody seems to get any better.
The Family Room takes us round-robin through sessions with all of the therapists and their own therapists. Through each of these scenes, Coleite's dialogue highlights the fascinating duality each of these characters deal with. They project a persona of complete control and emotional detachment when running sessions, but it becomes clear that their lives are falling apart in different ways. Dr. Schwartz is caught in a worsening addiction to prescription meds, Dr. Durant is losing a battle with lung cancer while trying to come to grips with her children's perception of her, Dr. Goodwin—the youngest of the therapists and also David's shrink—struggles with feelings of inadequacy, being relatively green in her field, and the Drs. Campbell are starting to realize that their marriage has fallen apart. In the middle of this whirlwind of therapists and their issues is David, who has knowingly befriended Jennifer, one of his father's patients who goes to his school. Though his original misguided urge is to hurt his father and prove that he could solve her issues by just being there for her as a friend (that therapy isn't an answer), the two fall in love. But David may have done too much meddling with things he doesn't quite understand and when all is revealed, he may not only have jeopardized his father's career but the life of the girl he loves.
Coleite's script is richly layered and meticulously detailed. So many different characters interacting with each other, giving such intimate details of their lives, runs the risk of getting messy, but he juggles them all perfectly. Each therapist is so well developed and their strengths and weaknesses, both in their jobs and in life, seep out of each interaction. What's even more amazing is that, while they all share the same profession, their execution of their sessions never bleeds into another. Each therapist has his or her own distinct style with the patient. David and Jennifer provide a beautiful juxtaposition to the other characters. Though both troubled, they never run the risk of becoming stock "broody teenagers." Sometimes they even seem to be the smartest characters in the play.
It's in this brilliant and subtle comparison where Coleite delivers the true central message of his play. All of the therapy sessions seem "friendly" and "open," but as Dr. Durant says to Dr. Goodwin in Goodwin's therapy session, "We're not friends…. This isn't intimacy." Not long after that, we're given a perfect, beautiful scene between David and Jennifer, their first kiss, which shows us the intimacy that was missing from almost every other interaction in the play; an intimacy that we didn't even realize wasn't there with everything personal that was being revealed. In an ironic fashion, these brilliant minds, so adept at helping others through their issues, never seem to learn how to help each other through their own problems. The two troubled teenagers find that key first.
Coleite's thoughtful script is only made more impactful by Gwenyth Reitz tight pacing and creative staging and strong, meticulous performances across the board. Jonathan Tindle's Dr. Schwartz heaps a quick wit and an aura of confidence to cover up his insecurities and addiction. Even when the younger Dr. Goodwin is trying to act tough, Coco Medvitz makes sure that we realize just how unsteady her footing is. Jacqueline Sydney's Dr. Durant is a tough, leathery personality, with a beautiful, subtle vulnerability always bubbling just beneath the surface. David M. Pincus and Nancy Stone, as the parents, both portray such a strong desire to understand how to interact with each other and their son, which makes their cluelessness all the more sad. However, Tyler Lea and Leah Barker (as David and Jennifer) anchor the entire piece with two nuanced, beautiful performances. Tyler Lea is perfect as a brooding kid who just wants to make his parents notice. He plays his down moments so well that when he finds happiness with Jennifer, it's true joy onstage. Leah Barker expertly layers a charming and quirky personality over a wavy sea of emotion instability. Their chemistry and connection onstage gives The Family Room its heart-wrenching emotion center, and also a beacon of hope.
Ethos Performing Arts and the entire crew behind The Family Room, backed by the detailed, complex world Aron Eli Coleite has created, delivers a introspective, affecting night of theater. They show us that even the people who have trained their entire life just to "be there" for us when we find ourselves at rock bottom are just as susceptible to falling. They're just human, too. And even they still haven't learned everything there is to know about life; we're all still learning together.