Jackie Hoffmann, Michael Tucker, Jill Eikenberry; photo: Chris Reis
by David Epstein.
Clea Alsip David Ross, Tara Franklin, Jill Eikenberry; photo: Chris Reis
Directed by James Naughton. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"It’s not about love - it’s about family!"
In five scenes taking a total of one hour and nine minutes author David Epstein tells the story of a family ensconced in their summer home on an island off the coast of New York City, and in the middle of an impending wedding, who face their fears, struggle with a storm and grow wild on weed. Even a death in the family cannot suppress the angry flares, the monstrous betrayals and the political appeals through which they suffer.
"Brace Yourself" is the final mainstage play of the Berkshire Theatre Festival Group’s Stockbridge season. It is a funny play, what some off-Broadway producers in the 1960s dubbed a "laff-riot" and if it isn’t as funny as the funniest sitcom you’ve ever seen, that is only because there isn’t a gay character pretending not to be gay or a black actor pretending to be greyish white. This is a funny play, one with a corpse on stage for two full scenes, but still funny.
Think of The Goldberg’s Go to Far Rockaway and you’re not far off the mark. Or better yet, The Nanny On the Beach with Mr. Sheffield played by a pretty blonde girl who is as out of place as a Boston Baked Bean Pot at a Latke party. Epstein has written a genuinely funny, ethnic comedy that can still appeal to non-Jews. That’s a good thing because the lovely Tara Franklin plays the Jewish daughter who doesn’t want the big wedding her mother has planned for her.
Director James Naughton, not an inconsiderable funny man himself on stage and screen, has put this play onto the stage and he keeps things moving as only an actor can in such a situation. He has probably worked on the timing of reactions and the timing of line deliveries and the timing of entrances, exits and cross-overs. There isn’t an imperfect moment in this play and that makes things work like clockwork (including the audience’s laughter) but he has forgotten to ask his actors to hold on the laughs before launching into their next lines. Had he done so the show might have lasted one hour and fifteen minutes.
Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker bring their real life relationship to the stage as Sunny and Milt, wife and husband, parents of Nina and Andy. They have incredible trust here, knowing one another so well and playing what could be seen as a mirror image of their own lives. Hopefully they live a life that is more responsible than their on-stage counterparts. Andy, as Michael is called here, is a man who loves to fish when he has the time and while he is on the island, he can always find the time. He is a placid, kind, sweet individual who would like his wife to be happy but who draws the line at being in the center of any local politics. Tucker plays all of this with great understanding and he presents his character as the kind of man everyone hopes for in a husband and father.
Eikenberry is one hundred percent nervous energy. If her Sunny glows it is from deep within and with a thrusting blow of light she sets fire to her family and friends. Sunny is a powerhouse organizer with too much time on her hands and a knack for not listening to her children. The actress gets this all across with a snarl and a growl and whole heap of other animal sounds; she even moves with a feline hesitation in her step. And sitting on the couch she is still way taller than Tucker.
David Ross is suitably surly a son who won’t be questioned and Tara Franklin adds Nina, the daughter and bride, to her fine collection of well-wrought characters on the Berkshire stages. They both add a great deal to this play’s success track laugh track. The same can be said for Clea Alsip as Kitty, son Andy’s current love interest. She has charm to spare as the WASP in the nest of this Jewish clan.
Shining as brightly as possible is Jackie Hoffman’s Jeanette (and she doubles as the dead body - a truly funny character). Hoffman makes it possible to weather the stormy weather brewing in the harbor reminding me of Millie Halper (Ann Morgan Guilbert), the next door neighbor of Mary Tyler Moore’s Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show. Hoffman has some of the same physical characteristics and some of the same vocal qualities. Even so, she is her own woman here, playing a phone obsessed, political firecracker who can’t stop behaving as though her friend’s house is her own and Sunny’s kids her offspring. She received a much earned exit applause in one scene and she is funny even when she’s serious.
Hugh Landwehr’s oddly located city island summer house is the perfect setting for this little jewel of a play. David Murin has placed them in citified summer clothes that strike the perfect gong of recognition. Paul Gallo and Craig Stelzenmuller add the right sort of lighting for each scene and Scott Killian’s sound effects and music choices add to the picture nicely.
This isn’t much of a play but what there is is excellent. Funny — you’ll laugh until you plotz. Romantic — weedy but right on the money. Sad — well, who needs sad, anyway. Go see what talented people can produce when they all work together well.
Brace Yourself plays through August 25 on the main stage of the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Stockbridge campus of the Berkshire Theatre Festival on Route 7 in Stockbridge, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-298-5576 or go to their website at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.