The cast of Invisible Theatre's "Prodigal Son": Susan Cookie Baker, David Alexander Johnston, Christopher Koval, Susan Claassen and Andrey Lull
Closing out the 47th season of that small but mighty gang at the Invisible Theatre is Mr. Goldberg’s Prodigal Son, a new play by John W. Lowell. The press release called this production a premiere, and I have not been able to find mention of a production of it anywhere else. So IT is bringing us a brand spanking new play, which falls in line with the admirable commitment to producing new plays the theatre has made since its humble beginnings.
We’re all for giving new plays an airing. But, as would be expected, letting fly an untested script can bring mixed results. That’s the case here.
The play shows us the gathering of the Goldberg family on the Jewish holiday of Purim. Purim is a celebration lasting several days commemorating the deliverance of the Jews from the extinction intended by Haman, advisor to a Persian king. It’s rather a rowdy holiday, it seems, encouraging Jews to celebrate with food, including with triangular baked goods known as hamantaschen, and the excessive intake of alcohol within a generally rowdy, noise-filled atmosphere. It’s supposed to be a happy time.
But it’s not for the Goldbergs, particularly the patriarch Milton (David Alexander Johnston), who cannot enjoy the holiday because it also marks the anniversary of his elder son’s angrily taking leave of the family. His years of exile have saddened wife Joyce (Susan Cookie Baker) as well, but for the holiday’s sake she tries to tries to soften his bad mood. Younger son Charlie (Andrey Lull), smart and over-achieving, is excited about plans for college, and with Hettie (Susan Claassen), Milton’s rather dotty and over-involved mother, the group gathers for a rather perfunctorily celebrated dinner. But prodigal son Jerry (Christopher Koval) makes a surprise appearance, and his presence, as we might expect, causes a bit of a family kerfuffle.
This is an unmistakenly lightweight piece; that’s clear from the get-go. And it certainly offers provides a hefty dose of grins and laughs. However, several weak aspects of the new play become obvious as these thespians lend their storytelling efforts.
Some things actually just seem lame, and there are others that are confusing. The reason Jerry left is vague, and inclusion of that information might give us a better context for the action. In addition, a chunk of the rather aimless plot concerns the family business, an outfit that makes envelopes, of all things, which has fallen on hard times due to the ever-hungry giant conglomerates stifling competition and eating the little guys. We find that the biz is really struggling. It’s not clear, and certainly not plausibly so, why Milton is so dug in to the biz—family loyalty maybe?—especially when buy offers have come his way. And why has he hidden the troubles from the rest of the family. It’s an important aspect of the plot that they are all in this together. There is much carrying on about how the shares of the biz are divided between family members and who gets the deciding vote about the business of the business, into which discussion Hettie offers some bizarre—and again implausible—possibilities.
Yes, it’s just a fluffy comedy, but the playwright giving us a solid foundation to the story (as well as attention to detail as it is developed) is necessary to help inform the director and actors in their work so they can create believable characters who help us invest in the story. That’s lacking here, and I’m going to suggest it’s largely the playwright’s fault and not director Molly Lyons’.
The good news is that in spite of these things, we do manage to have our funny bones tickled. In particular, Claassen’s Hettie makes us both shake our heads and laugh out loud more than a handful of times. Perhaps the production will find its footing more as the run continues, and although the script is a bit threadbare, the actors still give an admirable effort. And these days, anyway we can find some laughs is a welcome opportunity. IT certainly gives us that.
Mr. Goldberg’s Prodigal Son
Presented by the Invisible Theatre
7:30 p.m. Wednesday though Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through May 6; additional performance 3 p.m. Saturday, May 5
1400 N. First Ave.
Run time: 85 minutes, no intermission