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They say you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family. It’s a cliche, but it’s the perfect one to describe Michelle Kholos Brooks’ Family Planning at Burbank’s Colony Theatre — a new play offering a cornucopia of platitudes about apples that don’t fall far from the tree, blood’s relative thickness to water and the ties that bind.
Middle-class suburbanites Sidney (Dee Ann Newkirk) and Michael (Jack Sundmacher) are your average couple striving to build a better life and start a family. Sidney’s in her first trimester, but worries about bringing the baby to term after a series of miscarriages. Instead of a child, their new arrival turns out to be Sidney’s mother, Diane (Christina Pickles), who lands on their doorstep in the middle of the night. She intends to stay for just a short visit (though three large suitcase indicate otherwise), and expects to be given the master bedroom. After all, she reasons, it used to be hers when she was still married to Larry (Bruce Weitz).
Soon thereafter, Larry — a ponytailed, yoga-loving, new age clown who also needs a place to stay — shows up. So in these economically trying times, when kids are moving back home in droves, Family Planning flips it. It’s hardly a groundbreaking creative choice but it’s the most original idea in the play. In time, Larry comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme involving heated toilet seats (because toilet seats are funny), and we learn that Diane left her ex and took a bag of his cash with him (so why doesn’t she just take a hotel room?)
The wife of Max Brooks (World War Z) and daughter-in-law of Mel Brooks, Kholos Brooks has written a play that is short on plot and confuses backstory with character. While there’s plenty of exposition, it’s merely personal history that fails to penetrate the surface of her characters. She comes closest in a late scene between Diane and Larry where they bury the hatchet and get drunk while pouring over the past. It’s an oddly emblematic scene that includes much of what’s wrong with Family Planning, whiplashing emotionally from solemnity to laughter, including a contrived climax that finds the duo tearing the place apart for no real reason other than the fact that they’re drunk.
Fine actors like Pickles and Weitz sometimes seem to struggle with the material when they’re not struggling under Cameron Watson’s static staging. While line readings move at a brisk tempo, the material is so leaden that 90 minutes feels like three hours. The performers seem to be watching each other deliver lines while waiting for their turn to speak, and a whiff of sitcom pervades — each scene ending with a neat little button.
Production designer David Potts‘ evocative 1970s house is easily the show’s strongest element, offering a sunken living room downstage with a space for a dining room table upstage center, behind the sofa, which makes no sense at all but somehow works.
“Sometimes I wish you were my mother,” Diane says to her daughter, Sidney. And Sidney responds, “Sometimes I wish you were mine!” It’s a clever exchange that sums up what the play is all about. But there’s nothing new about mature people behaving immaturely, about eccentric older people and their harried kids or family members driving each other crazy. In fact, there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all in the telling, but with Family Planning, there’s nothing new there either.
Venue: The Colony Theatre, Burbank (through Aug. 10)
Cast: Christina Pickles, Bruce Weitz, Dee Ann Newkirk and Jack Sundmacher
Director: Cameron Watson
Writer: Michelle Kholos Brooks
Set design: John McElveney
Lighting design: Jared A. Sayeg
Sound design: Steven Cahill
Costume design: Kate Bergh
Producer: The Colony Theatre
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