Zoe Kazan is bursting with talent. She is best known as a talented actress in both films (Revolutionary Road) and plays (Broadway’s The Behanding in Spokane). With We Live Here, a handsomely produced drama playing at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Off Broadway space at New York City Center through Nov. 6, she makes a promising debut as a playwright as well.
She acutely captures the passive-aggressive conversational rhythms of two well-to-do New England sisters, young Juilliard student Dinah (Betty Gilpin) and her older sister, Althea (Jessica Collins). Althea is about to marry a mild-mannered artist considerably older than her (Jeremy Shamos), and Dinah arrives home days before the wedding accompanied by her own much-older beau, a Juilliard teacher named Daniel (Oscar Isaac) who is no stranger to the family. The reunion does not go well. It seems that everyone is on edge for unspoken reasons, many having to do with Althea’s twin sister, who died in a mysterious ”accident” years before. The girls’ overly intrusive mom (Amy Irving) has even kept her bedroom intact. Yes, this is one of those dramas of withholding in which much of the narrative tension derives from the playwright’s decision to dispense relevant information in slow, steady drips. Eventually, we learn the family’s full backstory in an explosive final scene (following a wholly expendable flashback sequence). But the device feels more gimmicky than revelatory, a student exercise rather than a bold work of experimentation.
There are other signs of apprentice playwriting here, including pastiches of other plays (e.g., David Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole) and heavy-handed attempts to deepen the domestic drama with classical asides. Did the professor father (Mark Blum) really have to be a specialist in Greek philosophy? Well, if you want to shoehorn some Aristotelian theories on hamartia, or the fatal flaw, I suppose it helps. But the digression undercuts Kazan’s otherwise strong instincts for naturalism.
To her credit, Kazan’s dialogue can be quite funny, and the production is greatly aided by John Lee Beatty’s lavish set, which seems to have been ripped directly from the pages of Architectural Digest. We Live Here announces the arrival of a bold, ambitious voice in theater — but a voice that is not yet fully her own. B?
(Tickets: NYCityCenter.org or 212-581-1212)