Akira Kurosawa’s Rashōmon, which ingeniously told its story from multiple character perspectives, has inspired countless others to concoct their own slippery tales. But, of course, most of these imitators struggle with the problem of not being Kurosawa. The Pill, a family memoir comprised of several intergenerational viewpoints, is the latest proof that a plot device can only take you so far.
This comedy/drama/fitful musical also suffers from major tonal challenges, as it strains to push all of our emotional buttons. It’s a shame, because the cast gives it their all. Particularly good is Zoe Wilson, as Leni, a severely depressed teenager whose body dysmorphia has led to self-cutting and bouts of suicidal ideation. Wilson is just the right mix of pained and angry. Whenever she speaks, or sings, The Pill feels centered and we’re ready to delve deeper into Leni’s personal struggles.
But, unfortunately, a narrative tug-of-war prevents the focus from ever completely settling on Leni, or anyone else. Based on real events, The Pill is actually the product of five distinct voices: lead playwright Marla Mase and four of her family members, all listed as “contributing writers.” Everyone has a theatrical stand-in who gives their side of one seminal memory, which belongs to Leni’s mother–and Mase’s dramatic double–Sylvia (Winsome Brown). And, as for Tomás Doncker’s score, it serves the show’s humor well, but this humor doesn’t always serve the show.
Ten years ago, Sylvia mistakenly took one of her daughter’s anti-depressants, and it freaked her out. We hear from all concerned about the prelude and the aftermath to what happened: Leni; Sylvia; grandpa (Roger Rathburn); grandma (Marina Re); and Leni’s brother Phillip, played by different actors at ages ten (Joshua Turchin) and 20 (Adam Patterson). But, only Leni ever really interests us, despite the other actors’ best efforts.
Under the manic direction of Randolph Curtis Rand, the production designers do what they can to keep the audience from drifting away, which means relying on visual overload. Lisi Stoessel’s set, a geometric horseshoe of five rectangular screens, is essentially a delivery system for Kate Ducey’s projections, which include Hugh Laurie as Dr. House, an Ingmar Bergman parody, and, for the ensemble-sung “Lazy Moon,” a series of derrières. Everything syncs up surprisingly well, but it doesn’t take very long to start feeling whimsy fatigue, especially when we learn about the real-life tragedy at the heart of The Pill.
I wanted to hear more about that.
The Pill (through February 4, 2018)
La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club
La MaMa, 66 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit http://www.lamama.org
Running time: one hour and 35 minutes with no intermission