The American sitcom, “All In The Family” TV series played from 1971 through 1979. It reached TV viewing heights for five years topping the Neilson ratings from ’71-’76. Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) was a bigoted, homophobic small man who thought putting down his Black neighbors, dingbat wife and meathead son-in-law; anyone in his orbit that was different earned the titles he bestowed upon them, was justified. (Sound familiar?)
For years we watched as he humiliated and belittled, confronted and laughed and we laughed along. In a look a like replay some thirty years later playwright Lindsay Ferrentino has penned a ‘new play’, “The Year To Come” now in a world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, through Dec. 30th.
|Adam Chandler-Berat, Pomme Koch, Jonathan Nichols, Jane Kaczmarek Ray Anthony Thomas and Marcia DeBonis
Unfortunately Frank, (Jonathan Nichols) the patriarch, a Cuban-American married to Jewish Estelle (Jane Kaczmarek, “Malcolm in the Middle”) has replaced white Archie Bunker in this rewind family sit-com deftly directed by Anne Kauffman where both laughs and polite chuckles settled into the opening night audience where the otherwise period dated sound design by Brandon Wolcott and oft times anticipated give and take set in.
|Cast of "The Year To Come"
Ferrentino sets her family’s comedy/drama in Florida 2018 and winds it back to 2000 New York and the crash into the Twin Towers. Do I remember that date? You bet your sweet bipppie I do. I can tell you, as most can that lived through that nightmare remember, and at some point, Frank a retired New York firefighter, remembers exactly what he was doing that day, wishing it might have been different. Regrets? He has many.
Pieces of the playwright’s family portrait help complete their journey from there to here as the narrative clicks back in time. After two and a half hours sitting through the vicissitudes of this dysfunctional family grounded in what some might refer to as a sit com, (there are some pretty serious undertones as well) the past catches up with the now, but it takes too long, revelations are predictable and the future is still unpredictable.
|Pomme Koch and Adam Chandler-Berat
We begin in 2018 with Pam’s (Marcia DeBonis, consistent throughout) opening dialogue as she attempts to light up a smoke with an oxygen tank flanking her side, holding a cane and wearing a New Years Eve party hat. We soon later learn that she is Estelle’s sister whose husband Joe (Ray Anthony Thomas in a thankless role) is African American. Note there’s a bit of everything in this family unit and in the end all seem to be cordial and accepting of one another.
Segueing back to 2017 and another New Years Eve and 2016 (Anna Robinson video designer keeps track of the years) and another New Years Eve we’re off and sailing back over the years. Throughout the course of the evening and passing years we do get to meet all of Frank and Estelle's family, the good, the bad and the ugly of the lot.
Unfortunately there is no one in this family interesting enough worth spending any more time with than we already have, although I could engage Peter Van Wagner’s turn as Pop Pop the guitar- playing Jewish Grand-Dad and survivor who in some year or other suffered a stroke. Most of the rest of his stage time is spent in a wheel chair in a semi vegetable state.
|Jane Kaczmarek and Adam Chandler-Berat
Family matriarch Jane Kaczmarek’s Estelle feels more at home than anyone else on stage but really doesn’t have much to say or do; she’s busy getting favorite snacks of chips and onion dip out onto the patio. Mid way through the play she has an emotional breakdown in the pool that caught me by surprise. Her performance stole my breath. Jonathan Nichols’ Frank almost redeemed himself in that one scene with Estelle.
In their Florida retreat where the is sun is an all year happening, Frank put a screen covering the pool that was intended to catch any nasty ‘stuff’ the Vultures might drop. The Pool is the talk of the play. In the background images of other rooms can be seen; sliding doors, tables, palm trees, etc. Christopher Acebo designed the set)
Strong performances punctuate Kauffman’s staging. Husband and husband Chandler-Berat and Koch interactions while cute just scratch the surface of their lifestyle. They convince on some level.
Marcia DeBonis’ Pam can’t decide if she was better off under Obama than Trump when it comes to her insurance, as she continues to be glued to Fox News and lighting up another cigarette. Thomas’ Joe wants to get back into the comedy circuit but he’s not very funny. DeBonis’ character is a character throughout and Thomas’ Joe felt like an add -on.
|Marcia DeBonis and Ray Anthony Thomas
Lap Chi Chu’s lighting design enhances and gives us a glimpse into where they used to live and now live. The changes especially after the snow dropping on Long Island to the sun in Florida is a big contrast with Dede Ayite’s drab winter cloaks and boots distinctly different from bathing suits and flip flops.
J. Jared Janis’ wig, hair and makeup designs miraculously takes years off each character putting them in the right time frames as their younger selves and Dede Ayite’s costumes do the same. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the pool one more time. It’s the center of activity; everything seems to revolve around it. Nice touch but those with front row seats might bring a tarp or two.
Politics and bullies, old, new, borrowed or blue is nothing new, it’s just more open out there in 2018. “The Year To Come” is a brand new play right out of the chute digging into the then and the now. Hats of to Ms. Ferrentino who beckons back to her own childhood experiences as the model for her latest play.
|Jane Kaczmarek and Marcia DeBonis in background. Adam Chandler-Berat and Pomme Koch (front)
With some proper cutting and sharpening of the characters characters, most who are just coping, “The Year To Come” could play out more meaningfully than what we see.
Serious family matters would matter more to this audience of one that while expecting some laughs, deeper insight into the why and the what would go a long way. Once Frank (a strong performance by Jonathan Nichols) outed himself, there was no going back for yours truly. What we don't need is another bigot like character filling the airwaves and legitimate stages.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Dec. 30th
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Production Type: Comedy
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive,
Ticket Prices: $20.00-$86.00
Venue: Mandell Weiss Theatre
Photo: Jim Carmody