Families are like the state of California. Everybody knows the hazards of living along its treacherous shore. Just as this knowledge doesn't stop people from building dream houses there, no awareness of the way families go at one another inhibits the grand hopes people place on them.
It seems telling that Frank ("The Subject Was Roses") Gilroy's drama about the Benti family, "Any Given Day," is set in the Bronx during World War II, when the family as an institution seemed in no way imperiled.
Carmen (so named by her late father, an opera lover) was abandoned by her husband many years before. She is about to remarry, but her new husband is unwilling to live with her retarded son full time.
She has a sister whose marriage is full of tension, a brother with tuberculosis. The most interesting character is the family matriarch, who has analyzed her children and their mates with a precision that at times seems heartless.
What makes family drama difficult to perform is that so much of what governs them lies beneath the surface. To be persuasive, the actors must find ways to convey this subterranean life, to project all the intangibles that hold the family together.
Although the cast here does strong work, what's missing is the interstitial tissue that would make the play seem less episodic, less a series of crises than an ongoing saga.
In some ways, Sada Thompson, as the matriarch, benefits from the fact that much of the time she seems an observer, not an active participant. Even in this passive mode, however, Thompson is an actress of indomitable strength, preparing us for the somewhat melodramatic revelations of the final scenes.
As Carmen, Andrea Marcovicci almost seems too resilient, not wounded enough for a woman willing to make a cruel sacrifice to begin a new life. Andrew Robinson is convincing as her edgy fiance, as are Lisa Eichhorn and Victor Slezak as her embattled sister and brother-in-law.
Peter Frechette seems a bit too jolly as the tubercular brother.
Stephen Pearlman is solid as the family doctor, and Justin Kirk and Gabriel Olds handled the young boys' roles well.
Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's set captures the period and the suffocating quality of the household perfectly. Ann Roth's costumes also locate us beautifully.
And the subject is ashes. Frank D. Gilroy's "Any Given Day," which opened at the Longacre Theater last night, is offering us a hauntingly chilling portrait of a dysfunctional Bronx family just before World War II, and even before psychologists had helpfully explained precisely how dysfunction functioned.
Here Gilroy is successfully returned to the type of domestic drama that first made his reputation three decades ago, with those plays of soldiers and their postwar return, "The Subject Was Roses" and "Who'll Save the Plowboy?"
Mrs. Benti (Sada Thompson), a formidable, widowed matriarch and part-time clairvoyant, sourly presides over a depressed, slightly tattered Irish-Italian family from her capacious, genteelly shabby apartment west of The Bronx's Grand Concourse.
Her daughters, Carmen and Nettie (Andrea Marcovicci and Lisa Eichhorn) - both once in vaudeville - have been unlucky in love. Carmen has a disabled son, Willis (Justin Kirk), who is possibly an idiot-savant, and has had an affair with her sister's husband, John Cleary (Victor Slezak), virtually under the nose of her pompously good-hearted suitor, Gus Brower (Andrew Robinson).
The unhappy household is completed with Mrs. Benti's son, Eddie (Peter Frechette), who is apparently dying of TB; the Clearys' frail teenage son, Timmy (Gabriel Olds); and a stereotypical Jewish Dr. Goldman (Stephen Pearlman), an all-understanding medico who seems to have dropped in from the play by Chekhov next door.
Although Gilroy tries to provide the emotional underpinnings and psychological impulses of his characters, the analysis is never that deep, nor are the results ever that illuminating. The problems tend to be paper tigers prowling in a plastic cage.
Here, even the play's narrative and effectiveness tends to hinge too easily on Mrs. Benti's presumed psychic powers - and while we can accept casually the visionary abilities of Macbeth's three witches, in a modern play fortunetelling must surely be made either less or more of an issue.
Yet, in tone and even texture, this confidently characteristic American play is not that far removed from O'Neill, Miller or even Tennessee Williams. The difference is those qualities of poetry, truth and resonance that make them great playwrights. Simply compare Gilroy's last lines here with the ending, which it echoes of O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey."
This level apart, plays like "Any Given Day," offer, apart from the unmatchable incandescence of a live performance, that thoughtful entertainment we expect as virtually a norm in better-class movies but nowadays rarely encounter in the theater. The non-masterpiece, merely good play - unlike its cinematic equivalent - is endangered to the point of obsolescence.
There is convincingly depressed scenery by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg, neatly period costuming from Ann Roth and a swift, colloquial staging by Paul Benedict. And the acting is mostly very convincing.
Thompson, the play's star, did seem surlily non-plussed by the role's difficulties - but Marcovicci made a vibrantly wounded Carmen; Frechette, never better proved splendidly doomed as the brother; and Slezak, Robinson and Kirk scored in roles of interestingly demanding complexity.
Gilroy knows how to write, and he knows how to write for actors. He is less sure on how to write for people - but who isn't? The genius list is small.
The fact that Mother knows best in "Any Given Day," Frank D. Gilroy's bitterly nostalgic drama of family warfare, is by no means a source of comfort. Mother, who is played with monumental stoicism by the great Sada Thompson, knows everything, actually, since she is cursed with the power of clairvoyance. And judging by the pained, steely mask in which Ms. Thompson sets her face for much of her performance, her character has seen in her family's future, to borrow from a Gershwin song, "more clouds of gray than any Russian play could guarantee."
"Any Given Day," which is set in an oppressively formal, down-at-the-heels middle-class Bronx apartment in the early 1940's, most immediately evokes the corrosive family portraits that dominated American drama in the middle of this century. The play, at the Longacre Theater, also seems to be Mr. Gilroy's bid to write something like a Chekhovian tragicomedy of withering expectations. In it, he has created a host of regretful characters with puny hopes of escaping from a suffocating, ambition-thwarting domestic world.
Unfortunately, the playwright has stacked his dramatic deck so heavily, and burdened his script with so many lugubrious symbols, that one knows from the play's inception that his characters have less chance of escaping than the Prozorov sisters had of making it to Moscow. And though "Any Given Day" is as solidly constructed as the heavy, dark-wooded furniture of its set (evocatively designed by Marjorie Bradley Kellogg), it ultimately lacks any power to surprise. Again, if you're ever in doubt as to where things might be going, just take a look at Ms. Thompson's face.
The work is the latest play to appear under the aegis of the Broadway Alliance, a coalition devoted to bringing lower-cost theater to Broadway. Directed by Paul Benedict, it deals with the extended family of the Clearys, the three characters of "The Subject Was Roses," a partly autobiographical work by Mr. Gilroy that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1965. A spare, tightly built domestic drama about the frictions between a father, mother and son after the son has returned home from service in World War II, it was most notable for its poignant understatement and dramatic economy.
In "Any Given Day," which ends several years before "Roses" begins, Mr. Gilroy has expanded not only his cast but also his thematic ambitions and emotional scale. It is a companion piece that roots the crises of the earlier play in a dark, psychologically convoluted family matrix. The three Clearys reappear as members of a large, terminally unhappy clan, led by the unbending widowed matriarch, Mrs. Benti (Ms. Thompson).
The play begins with a sardonically festive dinner party at the apartment Mrs. Benti shares with her tubercular son, Eddie (Peter Frechette), and her mentally disabled, wheelchair-bound grandson, Willis (Justin Kirk). The dinner is the occasion for the announcement of the engagement of Willis's mother, Carmen (Andrea Marcovicci), to Gus Brower (Andrew Robinson), a self-made entrepreneur of clinical efficiency and blind optimism.
No one except Gus seems very excited by the prospective nuptials. Dr. Goldman (Stephen Pearlman), the family's physician and (inexplicably) their long-time admirer, describes Gus as the sort of man who will always deliver on his promises, but will never promise very much.
The reverse can be said of the Bentis themselves: Mrs. Benti was briefly married to a rich man before moving on to the ineffectual opera-loving gentleman who fathered her children; Carmen once had a career as a vaudeville and radio singer; John Cleary (Victor Slezak), the father from "Roses" -- who here, it turns out, is having an affair with Carmen, the sister of his wife, Nettie (Lisa Eichhorn) -- has the chance of a job in Brazil.
Alas, the factors that will always drag the Bentis down are given loud and ominous voice. There is not only Mrs. Benti's little habit of seeing dark prophecies in tea leaves. There is also Eddie's soul-wracking cough (shades of "Long Day's Journey Into Night"), and Willis's tendency to explode into inarticulate rants, which seem to give vent to the collective anguish that is never far from the surface.
When Willis struggles to a standing position and falls on his face, the metaphoric significance is unmistakable. And when the clan gathers around the piano to sing "Dreamland," the irony rumbles like thunder.
Mr. Gilroy, who retains his fine ear for barbed domestic dialogue, is best in the early group scenes, when forced family jollity shades into potentially explosive prickliness. And there are a few moments that, with their melancholy resonances of the ambivalence common to all family relationships, have inescapable emotional pull. (Incidentally, two of them, including one in which a son dances with his mother in a flash of fleeting joy, directly recall events in "Roses.")
These are overwhelmed, however, by the play's series of melodramatic revelations (one involves a botched abortion and a mysterious stranger from the past) and some brazen confessional speeches. Ms. Marcovicci gets the most labored of them, in which Carmen, describing her time in vaudeville, announces bitterly, "For the first and only time in my life, I was free."
The cast here is potentially very strong, but few of its members are shown to their best advantage. Ms. Marcovicci and Ms. Eichhorn, both appealing performers, are trapped in a Good Sister-Bad Sister dichotomy that seems to inhibit nuance. Mr. Pearlman and Mr. Robinson exist principally as obtuse foils. Mr. Slezak is fine as the bristly, defensive son-in-law. And Mr. Frechette emanates a luminous, humor-edged ruefulness that breathes spontaneous life into some otherwise creaky scenes.
It is, of course, a treat to have Ms. Thompson back on a New York stage. With minimal changes of expression, she can switch on the transfixing, weighty sense of presence the part demands. But in the role of a maternal Cassandra, she seems to spend much of the play in a trance. One looks forward to seeing her fully awake on Broadway again.
In 1964, Frank Gilroy had a surprise hit with "The Subject Was Roses," about a son returning from the service after World War II to his embattled, embittered parents, only to find that he must leave home again if he is to have any chance of survival. With "Any Given Day," Gilroy's new work at the Longacre, the playwright paints an even bleaker family portrait, one so suffused with despair it makes "Roses" look like a romp.
Such melodramatic fare hardly seems a hot prospect for the seasonal trade, even with the reduced ticket prices assured by this Broadway Alliance production. Yet "Any Given Day" deserves a viewing for one very significant reason: It boasts an ensemble of rare and exemplary power, not only in the individual performances, but in the deftness with which director Paul Benedict has woven them together. This family may not be much fun to hang out with, but it truly looks and acts like a family.
Set in the Bronx a few years before "Roses,""Any Given Day" presents any given day in the lives of an Irish-Italian family overseen by an oddly Teutonic matriarch, Mrs. Benti (Sada Thompson). Mother, who sometimes seems to have wandered down the Bronx River Parkway from "Lost in Yonkers," has the dubious gift of clairvoyance. Her Pollyannaish daughter Netty (Lisa Eichhorn) is married to the brutish John (Victor Slezak), who has been intimate with Netty's sister, Carmen (Andrea Marcovici), and who dreams of striking it rich in Brazil. Netty and John's sickly son, Timmy (Gabriel Olds), will soon lie his way into the service; they are, of course, the Clearys of "Roses."
The unwed mother of the wheelchair-bound Willis (Justin Kirk), Carmen is engaged to Gus Brower (Andrew Robinson), a petty bigot and cool pragmatist who cannot, no matter how often he boasts his love for his fiancee, persuade anyone that he has a soul. Netty and Carmen's brother, Eddie (Peter Frechette), is a dreamer whose coughing fits, virtually at the curtain's rise, signal a trip to a TB sanatorium. Rounding out this unhappy family is a non-family member, Dr. Goldman (Stephen Pearlman), a frequent visitor whose basso reliably grows profundo as he imbibes the liquor flowing freely through Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's pretty dining room and parlor set.
The plot turns on Eddie's illness and the long-delayed marriage of Gus and Carmen, though, as the title suggests, neither is really the point. Gilroy presents this clan with authenticity and, more important, a weeping compassion that helps leaven the gloom. That empathy is embraced by a cast that plays with fire and conviction.
And yet "Any Given Day" is claustrophobic, not to say suffocating. The writing is unvaryingly telegraphic and declamatory, and despite a few clever revelations of character, the play draws unswervingly toits predictable conclusion. As well as he knows these people, Gilroy has damned them with small dreams and the promise only of continued disappointment. They don't take an audience anywhere.