In Darryl Vinyard’s new play, the comedy-drama Family Only, what starts out as a party celebrating a young couple’s achievement in buying a three bedroom fixer-upper with a pool in not–the-best neighborhood of Sherman Oaks, soon devolves into a contest of competing needs. Will (Frank Gangarossa) and Nicole (Riley Rae Baker) have invited only the members of Will’s family, and what a family it is. Start with Will’s half-sister Andrea (Anne Leyden), a brash, assertive, newly divorced mother of a six year-old daughter, Chloe, an unseen, unheard character with anger issues who, nevertheless, makes a big impact on the gathering. The mother and daughter are about to lose their apartment.
Will’s dad, Walter (Roger Kent Cruz), dreams big, but achieves small. He wants to be a big shot, a promoter, but barely hangs on to his job as a low-level salesman. He, too, is in financial straits and hits up his son for cash for a cockamamie project he has dreamed up. Walter’s wife Brenda (Sheila Shaw) loves her husband dearly. Brenda is a sweetheart and a stabilizing influence on her husband. And finally there is grandmother Amanda (Dianne Travis), an elderly, blunt talking woman who has buried three husbands. She knows her family well, clearly seeing all their flaws and virtues.
The catalyst of conflict is Andrea and what to do about her impending homelessness. She is mercurial and incapable of holding a job. Her daughter Chloe is a spinning Tasmanian devil of need and anger. Although unseen, she can be heard splashing in the pool and breaking things in the kitchen. Andrea has pretty much used up whatever capital she had with her family. Her father, Walter, is willing to take her in, but Brenda objects for any number of very good reasons. Will and Nicole are looking forward to starting a family and know full well that taking in Andrea and Chloe would destroy their own happiness. The situation is a conundrum that will be familiar to many.
Family Only boasts a superb cast. Mr. Gangarossa and Ms. Baker as the new homeowners are splendid norms of good behavior pushed to the limits by situation. Ms. Leyden as the demanding Andrea renders her character in broad, assertive strokes, pushing her family to the very edge of civility. Mr. Cruz as Walter is his own kind of needy, demanding and wheedling, yet somehow sadly sympathetic. As Brenda, Ms. Shaw creates a loving character that finally gets pushed past her limits. And Dianne Travis is simply splendid as a matriarch who speaks her mind; damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!
I found this play very absorbing. I watched with great concentration and a furrowed brow. I laughed at the humor and sat, with the rest of the audience, in pin drop silence as the second act hurtled toward climax and the release of dénoument. My companion and I talked and argued about the show for the entire forty-minute drive home. That is the effect of a very good, thought-provoking play.
Directed by Arden Teresa Lewis, the production is handsomely mounted with another fine set by Jeff G. Rack and lighting by Yancey Dunham. Paolo Greco designed the sound. I especially enjoyed the pool splashing and broken crockery. Costumes by Ms. Lewis reinforce character, time and place.
Family Matters runs through March 19 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd West in Los Angeles.