I never could get over Laurie’s marriage to little Amy in Little Women. Whether it was his former alliance with her sister or the fact that his and Jo’s teenage flirtations happened when Amy was still a kid, I couldn’t say. We Live Here, actress Zoe Kazan’s New York playwriting debut, kicks that sister-swapping creepiness up a notch.
The play opens the week of the wedding of New England family’s oldest daughter, Althea. Her younger sister, Dinah, comes home from her first year at Juilliard a little jumpy, her unease caused by her inner struggle over whether or not to invite her new boyfriend to her sister’s nuptials. Is it an older man? A professor at her school? Does he drive a motorcycle?
The answer to all three of these questions is yes, but that’s still not why he’s not the kind of guy you bring home to mom. Because when Daniel, eleven years her senior, shows up on their doorstep it’s revealed that he’s been brought home to this particular mom before. In fact, he dated Althea’s twin sister, Andy, when they were in high school, until their senior year when Andy died in an accident. Super creepy. And yet only Althea seems to be uncomfortable with his presence; their parents welcome this new (or old, depending on how you look at it) boyfriend with open arms.
The acting here is a mixed bag. Amy Irving as the mother plays disturbed well, every movement and comment tinged with the mannerisms of a woman who’s been slightly unhinged, yet at times she seemed to be overacting. Likewise Betty Gilpin as Dinah seemed to capture the naivety and youngness of someone who’s been babied her whole life, but I could never tell if her awkward mannerisms were a character trait or the actions of a nervous actress.
Jeremy Shamos as Althea’s fiance Sandy, who she met at Whole Foods (one of the funniest lines of the show), steals the spotlight from the moment he comes onstage. A talented artist who paints families because he grew up without one, his optimism, warmth, and just-go-with-it attitude are at such odds with the rest of the family. He sometimes comes across as stupid, but during his quiet one-on-one interactions, he reveals himself as wise, willing to move on from past tragedies, something no one else in the house seems able to do.
The second half of the first act is punched up with a flashback to Althea, Andy, and Daniel’s high school days; this is the best scene in the play. Andy is shown only as the prodigy dedicated to her music, locked in the piano room, deaf to her boyfriends’ calls as she plays. Jessica Collins as the teenage Althea is so much more fun to watch than thirty-something Althea, funny, immature, provocative, and manipulative. And Oscar Issac as a high school Daniel is also perfect in portraying an awkward teenager in awe and yet detached from his talented girlfriend, bumbling and awkward.
The second short scene is so brief that if you blink you’ll miss it, and the resounding question that could be heard throughout the theatre when the lights came up on the night I attended was, “that’s it?” It’s unfortunate, because until the conclusion the pace is quick, but not too quick, with a good sense of where secrets should be kept and revealed. The main problem is the last reveal that comes on the heels two new major conflicts that are never resolved, and a promise to talk about the past made by Althea, who seemed so cold she barely wanted to talk about the future, with little to no journey to that point. The audience is meant to believe that a single event shocked her to that state of mind, but she seems unchanged for too long after the event for that to be an accurate explanation.
Overall We Live Here is a well-written, well-acted play, its primary shortcoming its attempt to pack too many issues into a single play, and a lingering feeling of unfinished business at the end, easily one of the most difficult shortcomings for a play to overcome. It’s worth checking out, and I’m very excited to see Kazan’s future work; We Live Here definitely establishes her as a playwright to watch if not one who’s already fully shown her talents.