High Art vs. Hard Cash

The Moscows brings the easy laughs to the stage, but shies away from the harder issues at which it only hints

by Jonathan Padget
Published on May 19, 2011, 12:31am | Comments

Let's call it... The One With the Ross-like Nebbish Who Didn't Actually Marry the Lesbian Who Left Him for Another Woman.

Moscows of Nantucket
Moscows of Nantucket
(Photo by Stan Barouh)

Oh sure, The Moscows of Nantucket may be a snappier title. But Sam Forman's world-premiere comedy at Theater J feels about as fresh as a 1994 episode of the sitcom Friends. Granted, it would be a "Very Special Episode" and clock in at 90 minutes, but Forman rarely wants to do anything in The Moscows other than skim the surface of some rather serious issues he touches on, before getting back to the business of glossy, upscale domesticity and punch lines delivered for an opening-night audience quite happy to assume the role of laugh track.

Like his protagonist -- frustrated novelist Benjamin Moscow (James Flanagan) -- the playwright, too, seems torn between the call of high art and the call of hard cash that beckons in more commercial realms such as TV, where Benjamin's big brother, Michael (Michael Glenn), has found success in spades as a producer in L.A. The 30-something siblings have been thrown together for a week at their wealthy parents' Nantucket summer house, where Benjamin has retreated after his Brooklyn breakup to lick his wounds and lap up vodka.

Mom Ellen (Susan Rome) and dad Richard (Bob Rogerson) are doing their New England Jewish best to accommodate Michael's brassy girlfriend, Virginia Christiansen (she's a gentile, see?), portrayed by Heather Haney; and his unassuming nanny, Sarah Pearlman (Amal Saade), who's there to care for Michael's never-seen 3-year-old son, as well as to provide a romantic diversion for Benjamin.

On the eve of their departure, Hollywood-slick Michael and Southern-trailer-park-uncouth Virginia, who is also an actress on his hit TV show, are more eager to share news of their Emmy nominations than they are to divulge important developments in their personal lives. (Spoiler alert: Virginia is in a family way in more ways than one. Then again, how much of a spoiler is it to reveal potentially explosive plot points – interfaith marriage and child-rearing -- on which the characters will devote no more time than a 30-second ad spot?)

Benjamin faces emasculation every time he turns around – whether from the girlfriend who dumped him, the specter of his brother's fame and fortune, or from a mother who sees no harm in describing him as ''the daughter we never had'' and telling him that it's a good thing he's not like his brother, as the family couldn't handle ''twostrong personalities.''

Ye-ouch. And if Benjamin were a more sympathetic character, or even rendered with more charm than Flanagan brings to his performance, it would be easier to root for him to break free of this stifling environment and do his own thing to his own satisfaction. Yet what he's best at is swilling vodka and bemoaning the fact that, gee, no one really wants to pay a writer who hasn't written anything of substance in 10 years. (Apparently there was no gainful employment tying Benjamin to Brooklyn after his girlfriend went gay.)

Forman's script never achieves a satisfying balance between light comedy and the darker themes he hints at. He clearly wants The Moscowsto come across as the former, yet he tosses in big questions, seemingly for dramatic cred, then scurries away from them faster than a sand crab on the beach.

Is it a good idea for Michael and Virginia to consider having a child together when Michael's son, as Richard points out, gets so little of Michael's attention as it is? Can Benjamin ever get it together if he's clearly abusing alcohol and – wandering around in The Ugliest Bathrobe Ever – ignoring a depressive condition that his mom indicates they have in common? Is Michael as mean – not big-brother playground mean, but authentically not-a-good-person mean – as Benjamin seems to fear him to be?

THE MOSCOWS OF NANTUCKET
starstar and one half
To June 12
Theater J 1529 16th St. NW
$35-$60 800-494-TIXS theaterj.org

Well, those would be questions for a play that strives for something beyond labored setups (about labor, no less) regarding Virginia's ''vajayjay'' (yeesh) and her concern over its post-delivery state. Richard has read about something she should try: kugels. No, Ellen corrects him; that's pudding. He means Kegels. (Cue the riotous laughter.)

And they're certainly not questions for a play that, under Shirley Serotsky's direction, veers from Martha Stewart Living picturesque to Hangover-grade gross-out. (Benjamin swears off drinking by emptying his vodka bottle not in the sand, mind you, that surrounds Robbie Hayes's lovely set, but in a trash can – who does this? – so he can, of course, drink out of it moments later when his sobriety plan heads south.)

Aside from Flanagan, the performers are not without some charms. Haney throws herself into Virginia's Southern starlet shtick with gusto; Rome and Rogerson do well enough within the confines of their sunset-years parental roles; Glenn has a nice sense of swagger that eventually yields to some vulnerability; and Saade subtly conveys the sense of being a young woman enjoying the freedom of adulthood without the fear of failure that has crippled Benjamin.

It's all perfectly fine fodder for comedy, yet there's room for so much more nuance, complexity and enlightenment. As it is, Forman ties up the loose ends of The Moscowstighter than a Lower East Side bakery bundle. The playwright and the protagonist share the same struggle between aspiring for art and settling for commerce, and they both wind up on the same page.