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Adam Prince is credited with writing, directing, producing, set and sound designing and publicizing Family Secrets. In some of these roles, Prince seems extremely capable. The publicity is nice. The sound is clear, and the play features a well-chosen soundtrack of old jazz standards. The detailed split-level set--red floral couch, liquor bottles, a shelf of old board games--turns the Mather TV room into a good simulation of an old woman's living room and attic in Westchester County, N.Y.
But Family Secrets gives no indication that Prince has any talent as a writer or director. Here is the plot in a nutshell: Diane Casper (Daniela Raz), a 27-year-old photojournalist, visits her grandmother Theresa Stanski (Frances Maxime). While there, she finds rolls of old film in the attic, develops them and learns that years earlier her mother, Catherine Casper (Sheila McDonald), lied to Diane about her father.
Though not terribly original, this premise has the potential for real drama. However, Family Secrets provides two-and-a-half hours of utter boredom, and the one incident of dramatic interest--the confrontation between mother and daughter--is buried at the very end of the play. The play could easily be cut down to 15 minutes and no one would miss a thing.
Why does the play drag so? For one, Family Secrets is obscenely overwritten. The first two acts consist almost entirely of the grandmother reminiscing about her life. Again and again, Diane asks a question or shows Theresa a photo which triggers her grandmother to say, "God, that brings back memories." She then starts an interminable monologue about escaping from Warsaw during the Nazi occupation, or coming to America, or her late husband Joe. These speeches present a detailed and authentic-sounding portrait of Eastern European immigrants, but so what? The details have nothing to do with the plot and, more important, confine the action to the past, making for a most unsatisfactory theater-going experience.
To add to the problem, Prince directs the play in slow-motion, forgetting that theater should not mimic real life. Theater, it has been said, is real life with the boring bits cut out. Unfortunately, Family Secrets gives us nothing but boring bits. We see Diane dig through old boxes, we see Theresa walk slowly up the stairs, and we can do nothing but writhe in bored agony.
Given the turgid writing and directing, the actors should be more pitied than censured. Maxime, forced to utter unwieldly long speeches and act "old," still demonstrates stage presence and manages to make Theresa a sympathetic character. Her emotional range is limited, but one cannot tell if this is her own deficiency or her ill-conceived character's. Raz has to spend a lot of time pretending to develop pictures and reacting to her grandmother's speeches. But one feels she's at least trying to add some zest to her character.
As Theresa's chatty friend, Lucienne Lester has the misfortune of playing a completely superfluous character. Still, her comic energy and annoyingly fake southern accent liven up an otherwise dreary second act. The most skilled actor of the four, McDonald brings focus and commitment to her role. Although she quickly establishes the character of a tightly-coiled middle-age career woman, McDonald appears too late in the play. And her character's final confrontation with her daughter is so unconvincingly written as to be almost unwatchable.
The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Family Secrets has the best of intentions. A sincere, student-written show, the play obviously required a lot of time and effort. And proceeds go to the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (Lou Gehrig's disease) Association. But well-meaning efforts cannot salvage a hellish production.
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