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BETTER – StageSceneLA 10/5/2014

by Steven Stanley

When humorist Erma Bombeck wrote about “loving, laughing, defending, and trying to figure out the common thread that [binds] us all together,” the family she was referring to could easily have been the one to whose nest successful New York restaurateur Annie returns to face her father’s imminent death in Jessica Goldberg’s funny, perceptive, beautifully acted and directed new drama Better, the latest World Premiere from The Echo Theatre Company.

We first meet 30something Annie (Meredith Bishop) as she stands outside her family’s Ohio homestead, willing herself to enter while procrastinating over small talk with her bestseller-writing New Age guru husband Cal (Johnathan McClain), their awkward phone chat giving early hints that things may not be all that perfect on the marriage front.

Still, whatever discord there might be between husband and wife pales next to the realization that once Annie has turned the door knob and entered the house she called home for the first couple decades of her life, she will have to face the reality of a father (Joe Spano as Marty) in the final stages of terminal cancer.

Add to that a mother (Sigute Miller as Laurie) whose urgings that Annie respect a dying father’s wishes by taking over the family business, a brother (Jeremy Maxwell as John) with troubles of his own who would just as soon stay far away and let sis deal with the whole mess, a 93-year-old Russian-Jewish immigrant grandmother (Eve Sigall as Anya) suffering from dementia, and a high-school sweetheart (Malcolm Madera as local contractor Frank) whose divorce from a still ticked-off Missy (Andrea Grano) leaves him free to take up where he and Annie left off should his onetime school flame acquiesce, and you’ve got a recipe for family dramedy that each of us can identify with.

Inspired by her own father’s death and the breakup of her 10-year marriage to TV star Hamish Linklater (a pair of ill-boding facts where Annie is concerned), Better has the feel of a Sundance Film Festival indie filled with characters who reveal all the quirks and foibles of real life folk, that is if we were all as entertaining as Annie’s family and friends.

Jennifer Chambers directs with attention to finely-tuned performances as well as to fluidity of action in a succession of indoor-outdoor scenes that might stymie a less accomplished director.

It helps that Scenic Designer Extraordinaire Stephen Gifford (and the expansive playing area afforded by the Atwater Theatre Center) give Chambers and her actors plenty of playing area, Gifford’s terrific set revealing the outlines of Annie’s Midwest home (porch, bedroom, and nicely detailed kitchen) while letting our imaginations fill in the blanks.

It helps even more that playwright and director have been blessed by a couldn’t-be-better cast led by the incandescent Bishop, who once again dazzles with a multifaceted portrait of a woman dealing as best she can with love and loss and the whole damn thing.

Supporting performances are every bit as splendid, beginning with Miller’s wry turn as a wife and mom doing her best to deal with a crappy situation while remaining mum about a 20-year-old secret. Spano’s portrait of a man seeing his life cut short far too soon and Sigall’s of a woman whose life has gone on perhaps too long are equally indelible. Madera’s sexy stoner and Grano’s frisky divorcee add spice (and the possibility of two brief—or not so brief—affairs) to the mix, with Maxwell doing charismatic work as a fitness-obsessed personal trainer with a pesky steroid-related lawsuit on his hands. McClain completes the cast, terrifically as always, as Annie’s full-of-himself spouse, though a glimpse of one of Cal’s self-help seminars makes one wonder how Annie has put up with the author of The Happiness Paradox as long as she has. (Madera scores extra points for singing—and guitar strumming—Frank’s surprising discovery that life doesn’t end at thirty, as he always assumed it would.)

R. Christopher Stokes lighting is as gorgeous and evocative as lighting designs get. (If only so much of Goldberg’s play didn’t take place in dim, lulling evening light.) Sharell L. Martin’s costumes are each one character-perfect designs. Sound designer Michael Hooker enhances Better’s many moods every step of the way.

Better is produced by Chris Fields and Gwenn Morreale. Alana Dietz is assistant director. Samantha McCann is production stage manager.

Fresh and funny and touching and wise, Jessica Goldberg’s Better is yet another Echo Theatre Company winner. That Goldberg has come up with a way to end her latest creation in a scene of incandescent beauty and grace provides icing on what is already a scrumptious cake … and what could be better than that?

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