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  • Writer's pictureAnthony Chase

The Folks at Home

Review by Anthony Chase


six people in a play on a living room set
(L-R) P.K. Forston, Julianna Tracey, Shanntina Moore, Roderick Garr, Josie DiVincenzo, and Ryan Adam Norton in "The Folks at Home" at Alleyway Theatre

R. Eric Thomas’ play, The Folks at Home, hits so many hot-button topics that it seems to have been conceived by the marketing department of an audience-development think tank. The play invites us to indulge in a knowing and satirical homage to 1970s “situation comedies,” aka “sitcoms,” especially those from the Norman Lear school of progressivism. This includes a litany of landmark shows that began with All in the Family, before running through Sanford and Son, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, One Day at a Time, and Diff’rent Strokes, among numerous others. Indeed, these shows, which paired potent social critiques with an optimistic world view, encompassed the sort of themes that so many of us yearn to embrace today.

 

In brief:

  • A mixed-race gay couple is having financial difficulty and is worried about making the mortgage payment on their house.

  • The parents of one husband are having financial problems of their own, and having sold their own house at a loss, ask to move in. 

  • The mother of the other husband moves in without asking and yearns for a job as a Walmart greeter.

  • The house might, incidentally, be haunted. 

 

That is the set-up, or the “situation.” One big, conflicted family, plus a ghost, and a wacky unconventional maid, won in a raffle, are occupying the same house.  Before we’re through, the pregnant sister of one of the husbands will also stop by to dispense her own quirky wisdom.


The cast is very capable and appealing. If, at times, diction issues rendered entire passages incomprehensible, or if some had a tendency to allow the ends of sentences to fall off, this might have been a matter of trying to maintain the rapid pace of a zany comedy.

As Roger and Brandon, the home-owning couple, P.K. Forston and Ryan Adam Norton create the kind of appealing duo that audiences dearly want to stay together. Each has good comic timing and stage presence.

Roderick Garr and Shanntina Moore give a palpable demonstration of the benefits of experience, showcasing their formidable talents playing Roger’s disappointed but optimistic parents, Vernon and Pamela Harrison. Their interactions with each other, and with everyone they encounter in the play score as highlights of the evening.

Josie DiVincenzo, an actor who has spent a significant portion of her career in Los Angeles, including actual sitcom experience on shows like “My Sister Sam” and “Friends,” understands the genre. She gives a strong performance of her stock character, a variation of the unconventional mother. Here she is named Maureen. On other occasions she might have been Endora, Sophia, Elka, or Marie.  This is the character who is charged to be perpetually, yet endearingly, inappropriate. 

Julianna Tracey shamelessly goes for the gusto with two no-holds barred portrayals, first of the madcap maid, and then of Brandon’s daft yet wise sister. She succeeds, I believe, in being what we used to call “a hoot,” as for example, when Marla Gibbs played Florence on The Jeffersons or when Polly Holiday played Flo on Alice. She provides that unexpected bit of pungent levity, just when we thought things couldn’t get more zany, or when matters seem dangerously too settled.  Still, this maid is the short of character who might appear in the pilot episode, only to be cut from the series. The sister might eventually earn a spin-off series of her own, but why she needed to be in this episode, I’m not sure.

Like those 1970s sitcoms, within its two-hours and fifteen minutes, The Folks at Home touches on one contemporary social issue after another. Unlike those shows, which famously aimed for your heart and humanity with deep relevance and reflection, here, beyond the “touching” of issues, we are seldom burdened with much taxing insight. Indeed, apart from aimless conversation, hardly anything happens.

 

A conflicted interracial gay couple and their parents under the same roof with a ghost for over two hours? You’d think something would happen! The Folks at Home simply moves from one misunderstanding, improbable secret, or endearing anecdote to the next.

 

The title of the play, provocatively derived from Stephen Foster’s song, "The Old Folks at Home," in which an African slave yearns for the old plantation – a sentiment reinterpreted by W. E. B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk as a yearning for the people and values of Africa – might suggest a more potent social critique.

 

Interestingly, Jackie Sibblies Drury’s 2018 play, Fairview, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for drama, also pulled on the sitcom genre to re-examine the issue of race in a family and in the theater. The impact was both thrilling and thought-provoking, arguably disturbing, and I would contend, more enduring than what we have here.   

 

What we get is a succession of passing encounters, some humorous, some touching. Thomas has an undeniable gift for the spritely dialogue that is the hallmark of the best sitcoms. Still, while some of these passages are highly amusing or deeply affecting, they are generally disconnected from each other, often overwritten, and lead nowhere. I found myself yearning for the twenty-minute resolution that is another hallmark of great sitcom writing.


All the bits and pieces have been directed by Daniel F. Lendzian. Tania Barrenechea has provided the set, with light by Emma Schimminger, costumes by James Cichocki, and props by Diane Almeter Jones. The production looks handsome.

 

There might have been something Chekhovian about watching what doesn’t happen while we wait and wait for these guys not to sell the house. What we get, instead, is a rambling succession of prolix comedy sketches and poignant interactions, punctuated by the sound and fury of a lot of bickering and inconsequential comic mix-ups. A shift in tone at the conclusion, heralded with a emotional speech that signals we have arrived somewhere, seems unearned. 

 

There is, in flashes, some excellent writing, and maybe the seeds for enough stories to produce a full season of a high-quality sitcom. There also might be more fodder for the physical comedy of sit-com than was realized in this production. This play was, reportedly, greeted warmly in the playwright's hometown, Baltimore, where the action is set. I cannot know what might have been different there. In its current incarnation, The Folks at Home is a few drafts shy of a finished play.


The production continues at Alleyway Theatre, through March 2.

 

 

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