Times, Sunday, April 12, 1981
THE FAMILY THAT EATS TOGETHER...BY DAN SULLIVAN
A cynic might describe the family as an institution dedicated to
driving its members crazy. Yet it must have something going for it,
or why (for instance) would all those Oscar winners have taken up so
much time thanking their mothers, fathers and sisters back in
It is one of those necessary human arrangements that the race has
never made up its mind about. The tendency in the theater has been
to take the dark view. Aristotle in "The Poetics" recommends the
family matrix as ideal for tragedy-maximum love, maximum rage,
maximum opportunity. The playwrights have agreed. Think of "The
House of Atreus" or "Hamlet" or "Ghosts" or "Long Day's Journey" or
"The Homecoming" or "Buried Child." Family here is
inseparable from family curse.
There is a kinder stage tradition, too. It
presents home as the great good place, with Mother and Father the
source of all virtue and wisdom. Evil is whatever threatens the
"family. The American stage is rife with examples, from 19th-century
homestead melodrama to "Ah, Wilderness" (the family O'Neill wished
he had grown up in) to Thornton Wilder's plays. It's also one of network TV's kinder
fictions, as in "The Waltons," "Little House on the Prairie" and
"Eight Is Enough."
Los Angeles has just seen two plays that went about as far as you
can go, on the one hand, to canonize the family, and, on the
otheir to dump-on it. On the positive side, we had "Turn to the
Right," in which a stalwart son helps his sainted mother and virtuous sister save the family peach orchard Even for
a piece set in 1914, it seemed a bit idealized. On the other side,
"Prairie Avenue" showed us an unbalanced son burning the
neighborhood down to get back at his pig of a father for slapping
his whining Ma around. There was a lot of idealization going on
here, too—in reverse.
A play that told the truth about family life would have to be
mixed. It would have to deal with its doubleness: how you can feel
part of a family yet alone in it. It would have to deal with the
usualness of family life, its regular run of mealtimes and bedtimes.
It could use an ear for the funny things that family members say to
each other, especially when they're being earnest. And it could
convey another double truth. This family will die. The family will
James Lapine's "Table Settings" at the Matrix touches on all
these matters without getting soggy and universal. Its first
interest is getting laughs, and it doesn't mind being a little broad
to do so. Call it a Jewish family sitcom, without the plot. It's
simply a series of short scenes around the family table, not always
in the same apartment, and not always related to eating. We don't
miss the story. We can read what's happened to the family since the
last meal, by what's said at this one.
For humor, the play owes a lot to Mrs. Portnoy and all. the other
Jewish mothers and sons in recent fiction. It also is in debt to 20
years of TV family comedy. There's even the scene where Daddy tells Daughter that over his
dead body is she going out that door with her neckline cut down to there. We
have seen a lot of this before.
So? Life is imitating TV every day of the week. Lapine figures
that if he can draw his characters and situations sharply enough he
can get both what's typical and what's unique about them; and
generally, he brings it off. He even makes the familiarity of these
lives an expressive element. His characters feel like clichés to
themselves, and they don't like it. Who wants to be a stereotype?
The mother—grandmother, by now, with her husband dead and her
sons grown—has some wonderful chats with us about this. She came
from Minsk as a girl, and she still remembers how cold it was
there—the cold standing for more than the weather. She has seen a
few things in life, more than her sophisticated children have, and
it offends her to be written off as a cartoon.
What's so funny about wanting to see your sons eating enough and
married to nice Jewish girls? I don't know, but it's impossible not
to laugh as Helen Verbit goes through the age-old patterns of worry
and joy over her kids and their kids. Take the scene where her
granddaughter (Claudia Lonow) announces that she has finally had
her first menstrual period, known to all as "it." Verbit celebrates
this milestone by briskly slapping the girl in the face in the
traditional fashion, and running off in tears to think' that she
never had a daughter of her own to welcome thus to
womanhood. Is this her son's fault? No, but James Sutorius absurdly starts to feel guilty. Families.
Sutorius plays the responsible older married son, killing himself
down at his law office all day and drinking too many martinis to
unwind before dinner. You can see the heart attack coming, but it is
not the sort of play that deals in heart attacks. It's about trying
to make the kids quit fighting at the table. Sutorius and his wife
Valerie Curtin mostly can't.
Curtin's biggest problem is that she isn't Jewish—not that her
mother-in-law throws it up to her, but she feels she doesn't quite
belong. In their private moments, though, it's seen that everybody
in the family feels miscast and mis-perceived. Nobody understands
what I go through day after day. . . .
Everybody has his pet fear. Verbit is afraid they'll ship her off
to Miami. Stuart Rogers, as the 13-year-old grandson with the Bar
Mitzvah coming up, is afraid he will always be this small. He keeps
disappearing into his "cave" under the table, the way his uncle did
as a kid— which the uncle, pushing 30, still does. How long does it
take for a young man to find himself?
Richard Bey, an amiable druggie, appears to be less worried about
his future than everybody else, but we sense the family conscience
at work from within. He may be on the verge of getting his act
together, especially if the "right girl" should come along. Shelly
Batt—a psychiatric social worker with all the words —does not want
to get mixed up with this jerk. But she may have been assigned to
the role by the life force. Chemistry is destiny.
There's a nice Darwinian ruthlessness to that. "Table Settings"
respects its characters, but its basic interest is in the force
field set up by the family, whose energy is seen as something more
than the sum of its members' input. It is bigger, even, than Mama,
and Papa is still involved in it, through the sons. Interesting, to
see how it works. And if this family dies, there are a billion
others. If a play can be warm and impersonal at once, that's "Table
I'd been warned off the New York production as being crass and
shticky. That doesn't at all apply to Sam Weisman's production at
the Matrix. Even when the action gets a bit silly—Sutorius in black
sox and bathrobe playing the sex tiger— the actors never drop their
concern, and the laughs come against their wishes. Nobody wants to
live in a sitcom.
There are a couple of problems. Young Rogers as the Bar Mitvah
boy does tend to grab a little, from inexperience. Verbit on opening
night had to look for lines that should have come unbidden. Curtin
as the shiksa wife confuses us by looking exactly like the
smart Jewish girl that Sutorius should have married. Has she been
taking ethnic lessons?
Those are details only. "Table Settings" has class, all the way
down to Russell Pyle's dining-room set. It could have poked fun at
the family. Instead it's severe, suggesting a household with
standards, however threatened. Too many plays in Los Angeles are
merely presented. This one is produced. Joseph Stern and William
Devane, also known as Actors for Themselves, get the credit.
Second L.A. Times review
FUN AT THE TABLEBY DAN SULLIVAN
Have you ever noticed how much of
our lives we spend at the table, and how many other things we do
there besides eat?
Possibly you have, but it took
James Lapine to see that there was a play in it. Lapine's comedy,
"Table Settings," did very nicely Off Broadway last season and
should prove just as popular at the Matrix Theater. It's original,
it's well-observed and it gives its characters some credit.
That's not always the case when a
young American writer sits down to do a family play. Lapine, though,
has an agreeable way of not putting himself above the people he's
satirizing. Broad as the comedy gets, everybody in "Table Settings"
has feelings, which can be hurt. This, of course, adds to the fun.
The central gimmick of the play is
fun. We're gathered around a. dining room table for a family
meal. But not always the same table or the same meal. Sometimes
we're at Grandmother's. (That's all you're going to eat?) Sometimes
we're at Daughter-in-Law's. (Elbows off the table.) And sometimes
we're in a restaurant. (Nothing here appeals tome.).
Thornton Wilder used a like device
in a play called "The Long Christmas Dinner" in order to portray the
rise and fall of a rich New England family. Wilder's people,
however, were thin-blooded Yankees who tended not to speak until
spoken to. A little more white meat, Aunt Grace? Please.
people are a modern big-city Jewish family who tend to get upset
with each other rather easily, and to verbalize it. The leitmotif of
the play is: "Can't we have one meal around here in peace?"
The star of the family is the
Grandmother, a stylish-stout who does all the things that Jewish
Mothers are supposed to do. She forces her sponge cake on people,
goes on and on about stomach cancer and frequently wonders out loud
when her youngest son is going to find himself—and find himself a
The difference is that she
knows she's a social stereotype. You think that's a comfort? Who
wants to be a cliche? On the other hand—and actress Helen Verbit
makes this very clear—she is a lady of great self-respect. She knows
the world. Life is not all microwave ovens and dancing lessons. Any
society that makes a joke out of her is some half-baked society!
James Sutorius plays
Her-Son-the-Lawyer. He knocks himself out at the office all day
long—you can see the pressure in his face—and all he asks is a
little quiet when he comes home. Failing that, he'll take a martini.
Or more than one. By the end of the play he has kicked martinis for
jogging, and we are surprisingly glad for him. Here's another
cartoon with a person behind it.
He is married to Valerie Curtin,
who tries to be perfectly calm at all times. She is the ideal
Daughter-in-Law in all respects but one—she's a shiksa.
Grandmother tries not to hold this against her but we can feel the
pressure here too. The kids are Stuart Rogers, who worries about
being such a shrimp at 13, and Claudia Lonow, who worries about
being the last girl in her class to have her period. They are deep
into sibling rivalry. Did so. Did not. Did so. Did not. Uh, kids.
Want to stop?
The family's only laid-back member
is Grandmother's second son, the bum. Well, not bum. He just hasn't
found his métier. (Meanwhile, he's doing drugs.) Richard Bey makes
him an amiable layabout who well might find a focus for his life,
given the right wife, but also might just make her crazy.
Shelly Batt is the girl at the
moment, a psychiatric social worker who used to be a little crazy
herself, and suspects that this guy is a real loser. On the other
hand, she's getting attached to him. For all her textbook jargon,
Batt is as much a creature of circumstances as everybody else in the
play, and life will decide whether they get married.
Like "The Long Christmas Dinner"
it's a play about process and cycles. It's also like five years of a
sitcom series chopped into kibbles and linked with cute voice-over
titles. When somebody asks, "Whatever happened to Ozzie and
Harriet?" a fair answer might be: "This show."
But there's a truth to that, if
you've ever felt you were being held prisoner in your own personal
family sitcom. "Table Settings" realizes that you can't build a good
cliché without truth—that girls do go out to their first prom after
a fight with Daddy about the cut of their dress. Lapine's play is TV
and life at once, and director Sam Weisman has had his players find
both what's typical in their characters and what's unique. You'll
recognize this table.
Technical credits are first-rate,
by the way—Russell Pyle's solid family dining room; Gerry Hariton's
and Vicki Baral's varied light patterns (helpful in distinguishing
what parts of the play are fantasy); Charles Berliner's costumes.
Grandmother's orchid corsage in the restaurant scene is just out of
the florist's freezer, a typically careful detail.
"Table Settings" plays at 8 p.m.
Thursdays-Saturdays, at 7:30 p.m. Sundays, at the Matrix Theater,
7657 Melrose Ave., 852-1445. Tickets: $7.50.
P.S. The front of the theater has been so ferned
and cuted-up that you could drive past several times before
realizing that it isn't a kitchen boutique called "Table Settings."
Third L.A. Times review, July 12, 1981
THE SMALLER THEATER ALTERNATIVE
BY DAN SULLIVAN
"Table Settings" has been on the Calendar Best
Bets list for weeks. I went back to the Matrix Theater to see an
actress new to the show—Donna McKechnie, so terrific in "A Chorus
Line." She's terrific here, too, in a quieter way. She plays the
WASP daughter-in-law in a "typical" Jewish family. The original
actress seemed just the girl the mother-in-law would have
picked for her son. McKechnie's much closer to what playwright James
Lapine must have had in mind.
She gives us a cheerful (if it kills her) young
wife who approaches life as she would a Junior League project, and
is not on the same wavelength as little boys who hide under the
table for comfort and old ladies who adore talking about their best
At the same time, she loves her family and feels
responsible for them—she's got to be their merry little sunbeam,
chasing the darkness away. McKechnie's as droll and dear here as
Mary Tyler Moore used to be in the newsroom, without imitating
Moore. We have got to stop thinking of her as mainly a dancer. She's
also a dancer.
Other cast changes, especially among the men,
make "Table Settings" not quite so sharp now as when it opened. But
a critic friend from out of town (granted, a music critic) laughed
his head off and pronounced the performances excellent. If the
out-of-towners are risking Los Angeles' smaller theaters, the
natives should think about it, too.
Weekly, March 27-April 2, 1981 - PICK OF THE WEEK
James Lapine's comedy is pure pleasure,
beautifully produced (by Joseph Stern), imaginatively directed (by
Sam Weisman) and well-acted. The play has an interesting, episodic
structure. Vignettes all take place around the dinner table — the
very soul of Jewish family life - nicely threaded together and
usually announced by an offstage voice that sounds exactly like Don
Pardo himself. The titles - "Flanken," "How Was Your Day?," "The Bar
Mitzvah," "Sweet and Sour," "Dessert," are comments on the
proceedings as much as descriptions of what's about to happen. The
characters are unabashed stereotypes with names like "Sonny,"
"Cookie," "Buddy" and "Alice's Sister." The Jewish grandmother even
complains about the plight of a living stereotype, but don't mind
her, "How would you like a delicious piece of cake?" These people
talk at each other, occasionally to each other, and often they make
plaintive appeals to the audience. After all, "nobody understands
me, nobody even tries." And nobody who grew up in a Jewish family,
as I did, could fail to empathize with this delightful play It is
very, very funny because it is almost always right on target. And
the actors and director have managed to play it just right, never
too straight, never too broad. Whatever your ethnic background,
you'll enjoy Table Settings, it's as professionally done as
anything you're likely to find in any theater in town, large or
The Hollywood Reporter, Monday, March 30, 1981
BY RAY LOYND
Director Sam Weisman, facing an intricate and
challenging dramatic structure, captures with deftness and clarity
the familial peregrinations around a dinner table in this West Coast
premiering comedy by James Lapine.
Gliding through three generations, and anchored
in place by a family table as the source of humor and conflict, the
production takes a stereotypical Jewish household and creates a
nimble, artful and infectious experience.
The reward is observing the banalities and
ordinary crises of a family within a theatrical form and a lightness
of style that continually helps to inform the content. Since the
play is an unfolding series of vignettes, each briefly introduced by
a voice-over narrative, the work dangerously flirts with a
mechanical, episodic framework. But the viewpoint is always
coherent. Weisman's control and almost a kind of sublime elan give
the play a clean line and keep the domestic light opera from ever
lapsing into kitchen satire or dining room sentiment.
The evening is comparable to watching the old
TV-celebrated Loud family of Santa Barbara through the prism of a
selective and humorous sensibility.
It's not that playwright Lapine has anything new
to say about the American family — it's that we see it fresh, and we
rather like what we see.
Playgoers relate in terms of their own
experience; for some, for instance, the characters suggest, say,
that pocket of upper middle-class families south of Wilshire, north
of Olympic and west of Doheny. San Marino or Hancock Park or the
Hollywood Hills aren't quite right.
The people are Jewish, to the ancient bone in the
case of Helen Verbit's Russian earth mother; physically in the case
of the bothersome puberty kids (nicely rather than obnoxiously acted
by Claudia Lonow and Stuart Rogers), and unobtrusively in the
laid-back, dropped-out, druggie younger son (wonderfully played,
with an engaging mellowness, by Richard Bey).
One character, the wife (Valerie Curtin), is a
Gentile, but appears more Jewish than her martini-tippling attorney
husband (another sharp performance, by James Su-torius). The
drop-out son's girl friend, smartly handled by Shelley Batt, is a
psychiatrist and divorcee.
Nobody's the same at the end — not quite. The
stage hasn't been filled with passion or knockabout comedy (except
for one funny under-the-table sequence). Events slide before
you. The effect is subtly supported by Gerry Hariton and Vicki
Baral's lighting, Russell Pyle's settings, and Charles Berlinger's
Producer is Joseph Stern of Actors for
Drama-Logue, March 26-April 1, 1981
REVIEWED BY CHARLES FARBER
Shout hallelujah for a conjunction of good things
at the Matrix Theatre. Before recoiling from what may appear to be
excessive enthusiasm, consider the causes. Actors For Themselves
producers Joseph Stern and William Devane, who were responsible for
Are You Now or Have You Ever Been . . . ?, The Changing
Room and A Life in the Theatre, are back in business with
the West Coast premiere of an intriguing new comedy which received
(deservedly) the George Oppenheimer/Newsday award in 1980.
James Lapine's Table Settings satirizes the confusion and
frustration of a middle-class American family cut off from life's
roots in a theatrical shorthand which distinguishes it from other
works belonging to this familiar genre. With this play, actor Sam
Weisman makes his Los Angeles directorial debut, an auspicious one.
Last, but not least, the handsomely renovated Matrix is now a model
While categorical!y a Jewish family play,
Table Settings is basically American in that the typical middle
class family anywhere in the United States suffers to some degree
from the painful dichotomy of old values and new, but it appears
more clearly as the rift in the Jewish lute than in any other less
consecrated to tradition. The playwright has chosen a milieu perfect
for his purpose and obviously knows it well. Lapine has shrewdly and
meticulously eliminated the heavyhandedness which customarily weighs
down an account of the resentment, fear, nostalgia and
breast-beating engendered by cultural shock even unto the third and
fourth generations. What might easily have been a noodle-solid
kugel is a souffle in the hands of Lapine.
Cooking is dear to the heart of the play's Mother
(all seven characters are designed only by relationship to the
family), now a widow, who came from Minsk and allows none to forget
that one suffered from the bitter cold in old Russia but not from
immorality. Feeding her family is Mother's chief mission, which is
not so banal as it sounds, for she is providing nourishment for the
soul, if not the mind, in food for which her children find her sadly
lacking. Still, Mother manages to gather her reluctant, obstreperous
brood around the table as often as she can. The dining table is a
symbol of solidarity, strength and the sanctity of people breaking
bread together, which ritual is today more honored in the breach
than in the observance. When life has no center, the center of life
is in restaurants and other public places. It is significant that
Table Settings begins and ends in a restaurant.
Like most deeply engaging plays, it is moral;
like many plays of acute social contrast, it is funny, sometimes
hilarious. Laughter springs from the way these people succumb to the
shams and shibboleths of a culture spawned by the Beatles, Timothy
Leary, John Dewey, Dr. Spock, Madison Avenue, television and Freud's
inheritors, and the misled innocents' unrealized capacity to be
captains of their souls. They are characters out of Alan Ayckbourn,
their lives edited by Jules Feiffer.
While Weisman has directed his actors to take
Thurberish attitudes and stances, he still makes us feel that the
characters tremble on the edge of being flesh and blood. The
company's technique is more than equal to harmonizing revue-sketch
style and realism, a task requiring the utmost in precision and
timing. The main burden is on James Sutorius as martini-drinking
Older Son, a lawyer, and Valerie Curtin as his easily shocked Wife,
a shiksa. Their attempt to "turn each other on" is both
riotous and pathetic.
As spaced-out "lost" Younger Son, Richard Bey
dredges up deeper feelings than his relatives are called upon to do.
Shelly Batt plays Girlfriend (his), a trendy glib social worker
doomed to be nothing more than a caricature of a woman, with cool
assurance and arrogant contemporaneity. Claudia Lonow,
Granddaughter, skillfully traverses the path from screaming brat to
calculating ingenue. Moppet Stuart Rogers, Grandson, is in admirable
control without being precocious. Helen Verbit's Mother is closer to
being a stereotype than the rest of her family, but that's mainly in
the writing. The actress makes her a lovable matriarch; you may not
want to live under her roof, but you'd enjoy sitting at her table.
Russell Pyle's dark paneled dining room is the
perfect setting for the table center stage. Lighting by Gerry
Hariton and Vicki Baral effectively illuminates and bridges the many
scenes introduced by Voice Over (Paul Sparer), each with a verbal
caption. Costumes by Charles Berliner are appropriately unobtrusive.