Mia Chung’s Catch as Catch Can at Playwrights Horizons is a perfectly good, well-written domestic drama ruined by her inexplicable gimmick, one that is clearly seconded by her director Daniel Aukin and further hammered home, however awkwardly, by her cast of three hard-working actors.
Catch as Catch Can (CCC) tells of the intertwining of two close families, both Catholic, one Irish, one Italian. They all gossip, particularly the parents’ generation; prepare for a holiday celebration; and have to face some terrible, depressing realities.
Lon and Roberta Lavecchia are an older Italian-American couple with two children: Robbie and Daniela. Theresa Phelan is an Irish-American senior citizen. Her son is Tim.
Chung has the six characters played by three actors, each playing a parent/child duo switching from one to the other in confusing frequency. In addition, each actor plays a parent of the opposite gender.
To muddy things even further, all the characters are played by Asian-Americans who make honest, but failing, attempts to adopt working class Italian and Irish Catholic accents and attitudes. Lon/Daniela are played by Cindy Cheung; Roberta/Robbie by Jon Norman Schneider; and Theresa/Tim by Rob Yang.
CCC begins, literally, as a kitchen table drama in Matt Saunders’ room-within-room set decorated with old-fashioned floral wallpaper and appropriately simple furnishing.
Theresa and Roberta sit over coffee talking about the British Royal Family, soon segueing to matters closer to home. Tim, it seems, is engaged to a Korean girl, a fact which engenders ludicrous discussions of Asian genitalia and the probability that Tim’s upcoming nuptials will probably fail. Roberta’s aching wrist leads to a funny conversation about wrist braces. In other words, it’s just two non-Jewish yentas shooting the breeze.
Despite the author’s program notes about gender-bending and understanding that Schneider and Tang are impersonating old ladies, the first impression of this opening seems more like two gay guys chatting. Their accents are exaggeratedly clichéd and their body language doesn’t communicate either age or world-weariness.
As the play unspools, it becomes easier to differentiate the parent from the child, even though some of the transitions were sit-com funny, eliciting giggles. Tim would walk out and return a second later as Theresa. Daniela would turn her head and become her father, Lon. Similarly, Roberta would exit off stage left and return moments later from stage right as her son Robbie.
Despite Chung’s authorial insistence that these double roles are essential to the play’s meaning, the transitions took most of the attention from what is actually a beautifully detailed portrait of two working class families—parents remembering heartaches and their better educated adult children experiencing emotional turmoil and breakdowns.
In the course of the central event of CCC, the preparation for a Christmas get-together, the actors have to switch from parent to child and vice versa many times as bridge tables are opened, bowls laid out, colored lights hung on the wall and more gossip is exchanged, mostly about Tim’s as yet unseen fiancée.
The conversations among the three children reveal Daniela and Robbie’s sibling rivalry involving jealousy and money; Tim’s attraction to a unavailable Daniela; and Tim’s mental deterioration brought on by living a lie.
Chung has a good ear for the telling details of these characters’ lives, the everyday, seemingly insignificant, thoughts, activities and rituals. She also has a keen sense of their psychology and inner emotions, too.
Enver Chakatarsh’s costumes, modern, casual clothing, did nothng to indicate which character was which, but Marika Kent’s lighting, with its sometimes sudden variations, did often signify when the actors’ shifts from one character to another occurred. The lighting also supplied an occasional otherworldly effect.
Had six actors portrayed these roles Catch as Catch Can would be a fine slice of life, but Chung, instead, has dulled the richness of her own creation.
This production is a re-think of an original 2018 staging by Page 73 at The New Ohio Theatre.
Catch as Catch Can (through November 20, 2022)
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.phnyc.org
Running time: 105 minutes, without and intermission