Review of “Brace Yourself,” a new play by David Epstein on the Fitzpatrick Main Stage
by Larry Murray
Brace Yourself for an evening of nonstop laughter in this fabulous new play from David Epstein onstage at the Berkshire Theatre Group.
There’s no mystery what artistic director Kate Maguire was thinking when she chose to close out the Stockbridge season of the Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) with Brace Yourself.
Always leave them laughing.
It’s a phrase and a concept that entered the show business lexicon long ago, back when George M. Cohan wrote the song: “Always leave them laughing when you say goodbye”. In earlier decades it became a rule for playwrights to remember as they tailored the ending of three act plays. Then two acts. Brace Yourself is an antic one act comedy that delivers the laughs from the first moments to the last. Only the most dour among us could possibly resist its charms.
This is the first time that Brace Yourself has been staged, a world premiere if you will, but it has all the ingredients needed to become a classic that is performed again and again by community groups. That is, after America’s regional companies learn that it is a pot of comedic gold at the end of the theatrical rainbow. It has some real substance because it understands families and their dynamic relationships, portraying real conflict and emotion. Yet it plays as light as whipped cream.
Don’t let all the laughs fool you, this is a unique play and it has, under the humor, a heart-warming message. Forget all those plays about dysfunctional families over the years from O’Neil to Williams, this is the one about a normal, functional family, and hallelujah for that.
The genius of David Epstein’s comedy is its easy familiarity. Who among us has not overheard a frazzled mother arguing with an independent daughter over wedding arrangements. Or a husband trying to get some fishing in while the wife makes a hundred other demands on his time. All of this is taking place at a summer home on Fire Island, as a hurricane is approaching. Add in a looney friend who is looking for someone to run the little community of Ocean Beach, neighbors who crank up the music even though they are only a few feet between cottages, and a son who is the local Lothario, and a barely breathing 92 year old aunt, and the characters are all in place for 75 minutes of non-stop laughter. Seriously. There were only a few stretches of a minute or two to give the audience a chance to catch its breath. And they were well used for the balancing serious moments any comedy needs to be effective.
Rarely does a new play bring together all the elements so perfectly. In fact, this opinionator has no criticisms to offer except for one: I was having such fun, this play should have run longer! Bet you haven’t heard that from a critic before.
Starting with the physical set with its weathered clapboards and tiny, claustrophobic rooms, it was a perfect representation of the Long Island shore where I grew up. The family relationships were spot on, and director, James Naughton (give that man another Tony!) moved his chess pieces around like the grand master of theatre he is. While it seems illogical to say, this character driven play clearly defined each person’s place and personality in the familial hierarchy and then let the play grow organically, from their places in it.
There were no need for “f-bombs,” secrets, painful revelations or theatrical surprises to keep things going. At the beginning of the play the setup was already complete: two impending disasters, a wedding and a hurricane. Like flour, water and yeast, you can make theatrical bread out of those few ingredients. Director Naughton kneaded the bread purposefully, and had the extra ingredient of comedian Jackie Hoffman playing the nosey neighbor Jeanette. With a talent for creating crazy characters somewhere between Carol Burnett and Steve Martin, Hoffman actually played two – the neighbor and the elderly aunt who dies sitting upright in her chair,only to be discovered by Kitty (Clea Alsip) before we have gotten very far along in the story. Seeing Alsip at work on the stage, it was instantly apparent why she caught the eye and attention of David Ross as Andy.
But the real stars of the show are Jill Elkenberry as Sunny, a mom who takes her role ever so seriously, and may have sampled all the medications her large family has accumulated over the years. Elkenberry breaks our heart as she becomes aware that she is losing her grip on family matters, and while we cringe at her continued harangues, we also feel her pain. Michael Tucker plays her husband, brilliantly I might add, and if there was anyone on that stage that made me wish I could spend a day with, it is his beautifully honed character. So caring, yet nonchalant, he is willing to give his children room to become adults while his wife tries to tie the apron strings ever tighter.
I suppose the highlight of the play comes as a bit of a surprise when mom and Kitty decide to do a joint, and are soon joined by dad and Jeanette. This is the third play of the Berkshire season that features parents smoking marijuana. It could be viewed as an epidemic of plagiarism, or be simply explained as the Woodstock generation reaching late parenthood. Whatever, this is the funniest of the three, and perhaps the most authentic. I don’t want to think too long about how the playwright, actors and director came to invest the roll-on-the-floor funny scene with so much reality, and you don’t want to ask how I would know, either.
In the interest of keeping most of the surprises and punch lines intact so that you will enjoy them without spoilers, this is about as much information as you are going to need to know that this is a play that is not to be missed.
Go. Take a vacation on Fire Island. You will have yourself one rollicking good time. Maybe even the best night at a theatre this summer.
Berkshire Theatre Group presents Brace Yourself bu David Epstein, directed by James Naughton. Scenic Design by Hugh Landwehr, Costumes by David Murin, Lighting by Paul Gallo and Craig Steizenmuller, Sound by Scott Kilian. Cast: Clea Alsip, Jill Elkenberry, Tara Franklin, Jackie Hoffman, David Ross, and Michael Tucker. August 14-25. Running time 75 minutes with no intermission. Fitzpatrick Mainstage, Stockbridge, MA. www.berkshiretheatregroup.org Box Office 413-298-5576.