'Big Sky': Theater Review

Darrett Sanders
From left: Emily Robinson, Jennifer Westfeldt and Jon Tenney in 'Big Sky'
Lots of laughs and fine directing plaster over the dramaturgical cracks.
7/17/2016

Jennifer Westfeldt stars in Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros' new comedy about a family in financial trouble, world-premiering at the Geffen Playhouse.

Yearning seems axiomatic among the bourgeoisie. Providers yearn for money and status in a way that often distracts them from the ones they love. In turn, the neglected yearn for fulfillment. This is the dynamic that grounds playwright Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros’ new comedy at the Geffen Playhouse, Big Sky, about a well-heeled family on an Aspen vacation that they hope will remedy their financial troubles.

Businessman Jack (Jon Tenney) during the trip is a hair’s breadth away from landing a job that will rescue his family from insolvency. That brings minimal succor to his daughter Tessa (Emily Robinson) and wife Jen (Jennifer Westfeldt), but a huge sigh of relief to her friend, Jonathan, (Arnie Burton), who is depending on Jack to help finance his pillow business. “Pillows are a statement of intention,” he intones without a hint of humor. And yet humor is abundant in a play rife with clever one-liners but limited by mild stereotyping, rough plotting and an ending that comes perilously close to torpedoing much of the good work that precedes it.

The fact that there’s no food in set designer Derek McLane’s capacious Ritz-Carlton chalet hints at Jen’s predicament in the play’s opening moments. She’s been too busy texting her lover to shop for groceries. A lack of comestibles has a twofold function in that it cues the audience to her emotional state while also describing the void at the core of this particular family unit. Jen’s gay friend Jonathan returns from the slopes just as Jack is headed to the most important meeting of his career. As they unwind over a glass of wine by a warm fire, Jen confesses she’s been having an affair, though Jonathan would prefer not to know the sordid details.

But more sordid details are to come, since later, while Jonathan sneaks some medical marijuana, Tessa arrives and hectors him for a hit. Surprisingly, he complies, which seems out of character for someone who’s counting on Tessa’s father for a loan. The point is emblematic of Big Sky’s shortcomings, which is to say Jonathan steps out of character and gets high with a minor not because it’s who he is but because it serves the plot.

In a haze of smoke, Tessa tells Jonathan about her Native-American boyfriend, Catoni, whose name means "Big Sky" and who happens to be the porter in their Manhattan apartment building. He has taught her about his culture and imbued her with a hitherto unknown spirituality. She, like her mother, yearns for a man she cannot have. But in the meantime she swipes Jonathan’s pot on her way to a date with the daughter of the honcho with whom her father is meeting.

Gersten-Vassilaros (best known for Omnium Gatherum, which she co-wrote with Theresa Rebeck) writes dialogue that maintains a breeziness despite its exposition-heavy passages, although her themes of longing are more explicitly stated than woven into the material. And while stereotyping is an issue — the ambitious breadwinner who hasn’t time for his family, the insolent teen who can’t stand her parents, the witty gay best friend always handy with a wry remark — it's not such an obstacle that it fully hamstrings Big Sky.

The first act is a long and light-hearted set up to the second act when disaster strikes. Tessa is involved in a car accident (she hit a buffalo), and, with pot and alcohol in her system, could be facing federal charges, though why is never made clear. We’re given to understand no breathalyzer was administered and marijuana is legal in Colorado. In any case, the accident jeopardizes Jack’s chances of getting the new job. The situation slips from bad to worse when a freak blizzard results in a blackout and the family is plunged into darkness with no heat, which might be a little far-fetched in a Ritz-Carlton condo. The crisis forces them to confront the fact that they are broke, cold and defenseless against the elements. As they build a bonfire in the living room, a tom-tom is heard, symbolizing a return to simpler needs and wants.

It's here Gersten-Vassilaros has written herself into a corner, with an unsatisfying shift to the symbolic in the all-important conclusion. Which is not to say Big Sky is ruined by its ending. There's strong acting from Westfeldt, who anchors the ensemble with a nuanced interpretation that transcends the text. Tenney skates past some early jitters to present an empathetic portrait of a desperate man with his back to the wall, despite his character’s cliched preoccupation with work. Burton’s Jonathan is the plum role with numerous laugh lines and, as the least duplicitous character, it's nearly impossible not to root for him.

The cast's good work is attributable in part to the outstanding direction of John Rando, a Tony winner for Urinetown, and a nominee for the recent Broadway revival of On the Town. The play glides over oddly built-in structural limitations, like the author’s need to stage most of the first-act scenes between two people only, with one character leaving before another can enter, seldom overlapping. The comedy's humor and strong staging go a long way toward plastering over its failings, but it will take another draft to avoid the pitfalls of its weak ending.

Venue: The Geffen Playhouse, Los Angeles
Cast: Arnie Burton, Emily Robinson, Jon Tenney, Jennifer Westfeldt
Director: John Rando
Playwright: Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Denitsa Bliznakova
Lighting designer: Jaymi Lee Smith
Sound designer: John Gottlieb
Presented by the Geffen Playhouse

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