“You Better Sit Down” takes experimental premise too far

Posted by thetuftsdaily on October 31, 2011 under Arts & Living | 20 Comments to Read

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“This play is constructed from verbatim interviews between the actors and their parents. The actors play their parents.”

You know a storm is brewing the moment those words flash across the backdrop/projector screen of “You Better Sit Down: Tale From my Parents’ Divorce.” Performed by The Civilians in association with Emerson Arts, “You Better Sit Down” made good on its promise of a performance of one-sided interviews… and that’s about all.

From “How they met” to “What they were wearing” to “And now they’re divorced” (all titles were projected helpfully onto the screen behind the actors, in case you couldn’t figure out what was happening), the performance follows the rises and falls of five characters’ relationships and marriages. With four actors playing Janet (Robbie Collier), Mary Anne (Caitlin Miller), Frinde (Matthew Maher), John (Matthew Maher) and Beverly (Jennifer R. Morris), and with Janet being played by a male actor, it was only later in the show that it was really possible to completely differentiate the stories.

Despite the clever concept of “You Better Sit Down,” the play grew tedious rather quickly. The main problem was an obvious one: as the entire play was based off of direct transcriptions from telephone conversations between the actors and their parents, characters didn’t act so much as recite. The only real action occurred when actors made themselves tea or watered the plants in the wings of the stage. It is respectable that director Anne Kauffman stuck to Jennifer R. Morris’ premise so diligently, and that the actors worked so admirably with their scripts (all the actors were co-writers of the script). Still, watching four people have one-sided conversations for an hour and a half was just too much.  Using the telephone interviews as a starting point, and having the different actors on stage talk amongst themselves would have broken up the monotony nicely. But no dice- the actors parroted back their parents’ conversations, period.

With a projector screen doubling as ’70s-era wall paper and the blurbs announcing the title of the play’s sections, the play was inexplicably campy and hokey. For better or worse, the entire production started to feel like a low-budget game show where the contestants were neither competing for anything, nor interacting with one another. This wound up not being a bad thing, but it was slightly confusing at the beginning when it seemed as though the characters were trying to “one-up” each other in terms of marital misfortune.

Whether or not it is intended, the play’s presentation does touch on some thought-provoking ideas. The fact that the names of the characters are of little to no importance, paired with the play’s fragmented storytelling, shows just how similar most nascent romances are on paper. The stories do diverge noticeably as soon as it becomes clear that the play is handling four wildly different characters, including a delightfully understated anarchist who doesn’t believe in the institution of marriage in the first place. Overall, though, the lives of the characters mirror each other well enough that the play possesses traces of social commentary.

Also interesting, in a meta sort of way, is when the characters describe their relationship with their children, the actors themselves. “When you came out [when I gave birth], I was so drugged up I thought you were a football,” said in a Texan accent, has to be one of the funniest lines in contemporary theater. Other characters handle joint custody, raising their children, and protecting their prodigé from learning about their father’s imprisonment with snark and charm. Beverly’s response, “No, I don’t remember anything to do with you,” when asked about her daughter’s reaction to the divorce is simultaneously shocking and poignant, and does add some real depth to the play. It makes you wonder what you parents would say about your own upbringing, given the opportunity.

Though “You Better Sit Down” is only moderately successful in presentation, it manages to be both relevant and engaging, especially when viewed through the lens of social commentary. Above all, its aim seems to be experimentation, and this is does quite well. The play would probably pack more of a punch if it had only been condensed to a shorter length.

Photo courtesy Aaron Wesner/Ashmont Media

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