Samuel Beckett’s Nell (from Endgame) says, “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” The four characters in Paul Downs Colaizzo’s new play are deeply unhappy. In fact, they are so unhappy that we laugh all the time. In fact, even when we are not laughing, we want to laugh: such is the paradox of Signature Theatre’s world premiere of the dark satire, Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill.
To be sure, the theme explored in Autrey Mill is not new; Housewives have been Mad for quite a long time; and most recently, they have been quite Desperate, taking out their obsessions on all those around them. Suburbia as well has long been seen as a hotbed of unHappiness, full of Ordinary People, engaged in the deadliest of boredoms.
… fast paced and excruciatingly hilarious comedy
What makes this deluge of unhappiness so special is its fierce combination of exquisite comedy and agonizing pain. This family of four—a mom, a dad, and two grown sons—could not have more maladies, mishaps, or mendacities swirling within and around them if Colaizzo had gone to the library and looked up every one of Sigmund Freud’s complexes. In fact, maybe that is exactly what Colaizzo did; from bulimia to incest to Oedipal urges to more eating disorders to sexual abuse to necessary 20-year illusions, this screwed up Georgian family simply could not need more therapy.
And what’s truly miraculous is that Colaizzo and Signature’s production team keeps the incredible credible.
First and foremost, we have Christine Lahti as Carly, the mother of this family, in the midst of the upper class suburban community of the Falls of Autrey Mills (the real Falls in Georgia is spelled “Autry”). If you want to see an actor at the height of her craft, you have to go see this show and her mesmerizing Carly. Lahti’s technique is a marvel of modulation and crispness. Her Carly lets the audience love her even though no one in her stage family does. A lesser actor would have truly struggled to mine the gold in this character and her more-than-desperate situation.
Carly has just won autrey mill’s prize for the best flower arrangement. Her two sons have come home for the requisite photo for the newsletter, and to deliver disturbing news. Her husband too, a “workaholic” regional manager, has promised to come home for the photo as well. It is a family reunion of sorts.
First, we meet Chad the college senior, played with charming ineptness by Anthony Bowden. He immediately announces to his mom that he is gay. She, of course, cannot accept the truth of that statement: she wants biologically-sired traditional grandchildren. Thus, soon thereafter, she collects index cards of all the eligible and “appropriate” single women her son might consider marrying. The beauty of Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill is, however, that the play does not stop with the simple unmasking of the mother’s narrow “House Beautiful” world. Colaizzo goes further, unmasking in varying degrees of completeness, the narrow, psychologically distorted views of each of the characters, leaving us in the end thankful for the fall Carly’s delusions and hopeful that the men in her life will eventually have theirs.
Then we meet the older brother, Tommy, played with a delightful hunger by Christopher McFarland. Tommy comes home and tells his mom that, despite his two Ivy League diplomas, costing upwards of two hundred thousand dollars, he does not want to be lawyer any more but the manager of a pizza shop. Of course, Carly’s typically delusional self is upset with his decision, and we might easily side with Tommy’s desire for simple happiness until we come to understand that he has a serious eating disorder and deeper issues than simply pursuing an overly-hyped law career.
Then Louie enters, the father of this family of Freudian complexes, played with an utterly cheerful grumpiness by Wayne Duvall. When he tells Carly that he is love with another woman and needs to leave, it is not as if we hadn’t seen this train wreck coming from miles away, but when Carly stands with her “happy” family on the backyard deck, demanding that they watch the sunset while she recites the evening’s dinner menu, seemingly transplanted from such culinary hotspots as Restaurant Nora, Le Diplomate, or the Inn at Little Washington, complete with dishes such as “bitter chocolate-dusted lamb loin on salsify purée with ratatouille,” we roar with that “laugh that laughs … at that which is unhappy.” A truly virtuoso moment in the theatre!
Michael Kahn directs this maelstrom of a final family reunion, and he does so with the joy of a man who has finally been liberated from the classics. Without a doubt, Calaizzo’s play about middle class traditional values lies squarely in the maestro’s wheelhouse. The casting was impeccable and Kahn’s guidance of the cast spot on.
In Signature’s intimate Ark theatre, the design team for this play about expansive, expensive homes with monumental Roman columns had a real challenge on their hands. Scenic designer James Noone squeezed the necessary features into the small stage and with some clever turn-tabling added some additional spaces. Lighting designer Andrew Scharwath demarcated and punctuated the spaces wonderfully. In his costuming of Carly designer Frank Labovitz captured the essence of the southern nouveau rich, while Palmer Hefferan’s composition and sound designs were appropriately humorous. And whoever did the flower arrangement captured our eye and first prize.
When all is said and done, and this fast paced and excruciatingly hilarious comedy is done, you would be wise to go home and examine all your ritualized behaviors and attitudes. So you think you’re happy? Delusions are lurking everywhere. Do you really have a friend—someone with whom you can really share your intimate thoughts and feelings when the times get tough?
The beauty of Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill is that, despite the utter destruction at the root of the play, hope for our salvation still bubbles to the surface. If Carly can find hope, then so too might the three floundering men in her life. If only they find the courage to let loose of all the things they have ever owned in their lives.
Running Time: 95 minutes with a fifteen-minute intermission.
Advisory: Adult themes and language
Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill plays at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, Virginia, through December 8. For ticket, click here.