A goal of The Ryan Repertory Company’s “Family Time” play series is to expose those ages 13 and up and their parents to shorter plays that have provocative content. These Troubled Times is a very worthy addition to this program.
The happy interracial Madison family live in suburban Clearwater, Florida, and consist of African-American Melinda, her white firefighter husband Ed, their teenage son J.R. and teenage daughter Riley. Ed’s gay schoolteacher brother and his Spanish partner Kyle come to visit to watch the children while the couple goes on vacation.
Clashing with this familial harmony is busybody next-door neighbor Mrs. Raymond. She’s a cheerfully devout Christian who quotes Scripture, bakes cookies, and who has instigated a petition to ban young adult fiction such as The Hunger Games from the local high school English class.
Through the well-observed, often very humorous true-to-life writing and excellent performances, the audience gets to know all of these characters while underlying contemporary social issues are subtly dramatized and explored. Playwright Troy Diana takes what could just be a very well-written straightforward family situation and creatively adds an element of dark fantasy that is reminiscent of the best of Rod Serling’s work on The Twilight Zone.
The family’s periodically barking dog Beast and flyers for a missing child foretell ominous events. Due to the total conviction of the actors and the inventive work of the creative team, everything plays out convincingly on the relatively small stage including the riveting fantastical finale.
Director Jennifer Ortega does a masterful job of staging all of the comedy and seriousness as well as getting sharp performances from the cast. Concept designer Moira Shaughnessy’s work includes the stark slides above the playing area that depict the lush Florida scenery as well as grisly situations. The music and sound design of Jason Diana capably ranges from the conventional to the spooky.
“Any leading lady who doesn’t do a double take when a nine-foot bear asks her to dance is my kind of actress,” said Noel Coward of Elaine Stritch’s performance in the flop Broadway musical Goldilocks. The same sentiments of fortitude could be applied to four of the five-member cast as the unctuous Mrs. Raymond is played by the author in obvious drag. That the sight of a large man in a dress and blonde wig does not seem absurd and cause the others’ performances to stray from earnestness is a testament to their talent as well as to his commanding performance. This casting also adds a layer of complexity as the character makes many bigoted and homophobic statements and having her performed by a man highlights the spuriousness of these prejudices even more.
Marchelle Thurman as Melinda Madison is a striking presence who is so wonderfully centered and straightforward yet animated. The opening scene with her and Mrs. Raymond successfully takes the audience into the world of the play chiefly due to her concentrated focus. Shaven headed Shawn Mahoney as Ed Madison delightfully depicts the robust, fair-minded, stalwart attributes of the very likeable firefighter. Ms. Thurma and Mr. Mahoney also astonishingly and unrecognizably double as other characters.
As Uncle Charles, the hero of the play’s latter portion, Jacob Horstmeier is marvel of verisimilitude. Veering from caustic to courageous, his performance skillfully changes as the tone of the play changes. Eduardo Gotarredona as Charles’ Spanish partner Kyle (originally Camillo) with his booming, heavily accented voice at first appears very effectively as inspired comic relief but later gracefully switches to gravitas.
Though issue laden, These Troubled Times never becomes didactic. It’s billed as a “new comedy” which it excels at it but it also contains plenty of enthralling drama.
These Troubled Times (through June 29th, 2014) Ryan Repertory Company and Monarch Theater Company
Harry Warren Theatre, 2445 Bath Avenue, in Brooklyn
For reservations, call 718-996-4800 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Running time: one hour without intermission