Nicky Silver, whose entertaining Too Much Sun has just opened off-Broadway, has an advantage over most dramatists: he creates a distinctive, instantly recognisable world. For more than 20 years, he has been composing plays in which psychologically unstable families tear each other to tatters. The tone can be absurdist, wry or savage. One or both parents – usually the mother – preside over the melees, sending out insults that delight an audience while wounding their recipients.
Linda Lavin, who gave a stirring portrayal of an assertive matriarch in Silver’s previous, acclaimed play The Lyons, returns with Too Much Sun. Mark Brokaw is once again the director. If the new assignment, Audrey Langham, affords Lavin less opportunity to reveal emotional depth, it still furnishes her with ample occasion to drip acid on to remarks that might seem, on the page, relatively harmless.
An actor for more than 40 years, with all the great roles crowding her CV, Audrey has abruptly left a production of Medea in Chicago. “I don’t have to pretend any more,” she tells her daughter Kitty, given expert exasperation by Jennifer Westfeldt. Audrey has sought refuge at the holiday home of Kitty and her husband Dennis on Cape Cod. Audrey’s agent has sent his nephew Gil to retrieve her, and Gil seems superfluous until late in the evening, when he is part of the story’s one, true instance of the unexpected.
Surprises are otherwise scant. Lucas, a gay young marijuana peddler from the house next door, is imbued with brash charm by Matt Dickson, but the character’s trajectory is predictable. Lucas’s father Winston an expert on India, is similarly easy to chart, though his courtship of Audrey gives rise to a winsome scene in which she sings “Surabaya Johnny.”
To his credit, Silver doesn’t make the Medea motif predominant. Yes, Audrey was once pregnant with a child she had tagged “Jason” pre-birth. And, yes, the rage she feels for Jason and Kitty’s father (Audrey has had five official husbands) is murderous – we learn of this volcanic emotion during a long speech, which helps ease the exhausting tone of the preceding family sparring.
But Euripides presides lightly. The story is less about revenge and homicide than about remorse and self-blame. Unlike the gun on the wall in a Chekhov play, the gardening implements – rake, shears – that adorn Donyale Werle’s nicely detailed set are never used. Words are weapons enough in this amusing, not always satisfying play.