By Mayank Keshaviah
There’s a well-known lyric from the John Cougar Mellencamp song “Jack & Diane” that goes, “Oh yeah, life goes on / Long after the thrill of livin’ is gone.” In Jessica Goldberg’s family drama Better, New York restaurateur Annie (an emotive Meredith Bishop) grapples with this concept when she returns to Ohio to visit her father Marty (Joe Spano), who is dying of cancer.
Also dealing with the disappointing realities of adulthood are Annie’s seemingly-sensitive-but-distant husband Cal (Johnathan McClain), her brother John (Jeremy Maxwell), and her childhood friends Frank (Malcolm Madera) and his ex-wife Missy (Andrea Grano). Rounding out the family are Annie’s mother Laurie (Sigute Miller) and her senile grandmother Anya (Eve Sigall).
In Goldberg’s writing, the cutting snark of familial passive-aggressiveness is thick and apropos, and director Jennifer Chambers brings it out in nicely naturalistic ways through perfect pacing and frequently overlapping dialogue. Both Goldberg (who has written for NBC’s Parenthood) and Chambers also succeed in maintaining the sense of secrets constantly simmering under the surface.
Bishop masterfully plays Annie’s avoidance of her issues, deftly communicating her character’s rich subtext. Maxwell provides much of the broad comedy through John’s fitness obsession, while Madera and Grano find a darkly comic bravado in their characters, neither of whom have left the town or made much of their lives.
Though some story threads remain inadequately explored and the ending feels underdeveloped, Goldberg’s ability to get under the emotional skin of her characters and the solid cast that brings them to life are what shine in this production.