The world premiere of Peter Gil-Sheridan’s This Space Between Us gives itself away in its title: it is about a dysfunctional family that does nothing but argue when they get together. Jonathan Silverstein’s production for Keen Company bills itself as a comedy but unfortunately there are few if any laughs. While the author has an ear for realistic dialogue, he demonstrates little talent for plot, with the play as linear and predictable as could be. The only wrinkle in this timeworn theme is that the protagonist’s father is Cuban-born while his mother is American, and his Aunt Pat is a nun. One gets the feeling (possibly misplaced) that there is a semi-autobiographical element and the author is too close to his material.
Twenty-three minutes into the first scene set at the race track, Jamie Diaz (Ryan Garbayo), a successful Cuban American lawyer with a cushy job, announces that he is quitting his job to work at a non-profit which is helping starving people in the African nation of Eritrea. Rather than win lawsuits for corporate VIPs, he wants to make a real difference in the world. His boyfriend Ted (Tommy Heleringer) who he has not consulted is shocked; Gillian (Alex Chester), his best friend from his earliest days, feels betrayed that they will not be taking the long planned trip to Dubai and his conservative parents Frank and Debbie (Anthony Ruiz and Joyce Cohen) who have no other children do nothing but try to talk him out of it. Only Sister Pat (Glynis Bell), his aunt, pushes him to do what he finds he has a calling for.
The first five scenes of this six-scene play which ultimately send him off to Africa are nothing but arguments between the members of his immediate family who have always had plenty to argue about: his father has never accepted that his son is gay, Gillian cannot stand that Ted comes first, Ted isn’t happy that they mostly do what Jamie wants, and his mother Debbie resents that Jamie isn’t a better son to his parents. While sarcasm, witticisms, puns and one-liners can be entertaining, Gil-Sheridan’s dialogue does not offer that kind of humor. Instead we have an unpleasant band of people: Frank is continually making politically incorrect remarks and insulting his son; Gillian is selfish, entitled and materialistic; Ted is mainly a cipher without personality; Debbie complains and corrects everyone, while Jamie gives as good as he gets. Sister Pat plays peacemaker at all times, getting on everyone’s nerves by being so understanding. Ironically, when we finally see Jamie in Africa nothing is what he thought it would be like for a gay man in the 21st century.
Steve Kemp’s set design is rather a puzzle: the opening scene takes place at the race track with zipper signs of the day’s race. This wall of signs remains visible throughout the other five scenes for no apparent reason or are we supposed to be asking what are the odds that Jamie will be able to change the world? As written the second scene is also a bit of a puzzle. It takes place in a hospital where Ted (who is HIV+) has been taken because of a bad cough. However, in the following scenes it turns out it was all a mistake and the medical issue is dropped. Was the scene simply so that Jamie’s mother can find out that Ted is HIV+ which she had not been told or that his father is so homophobic he won’t visit Ted in the hospital? None of this seems like very good dramaturgy and none of this comes as a surprise.
Under Silverstein’s direction the cast is excellent at playing these very unpleasant people with almost no redeeming qualities. Even Garbayo as the protagonist is too sharp and impatient with all the people in his life to be heroic – though he probably is intended to be admirable. The casual clothing designed by Rodrigo Muñoz is fine for these characters without being particular memorable. Daisy Long’s lighting design is suitable without suggesting time of day or season. However, Maggie Bofill has performed a fine job on the dialect and cultural consultation as there is a great deal of untranslated Spanish spoken by Frank and Jamie.
Peter Gil-Sheridan’s This Space Between Us suggests that some families should not see each other very often and that parents should definitely let their children live their own lives. An evening with unpleasant people arguing in language that is not hilariously funny is not very entertaining even if it is realistic. Don’t blame the hard working cast who attempt to put over this domestic battle of wills.
This Space Between Us (February 22 – April 2, 2022)
Theatre Row, 410 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-714-2442 ex. 45 or visit http://www.keencompany.org
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission