The people of Nicky Silver’s “Too Much Sun” are people of privilege, there’s no question about that.
The play, currently running in its Los Angeles premiere production at the Odyssey Theatre, centers on aging actress Audrey Langham, who suddenly gets fed up with her life and career, walks out of a dress rehearsal for a production of “Medea” in which she is starring, and swoops into her married daughter’s Cape Cod summer home for an indefinite stay while she “figures things out.”
Even in that briefest of synopses, one can see the roots Silver’s play has in the classic American theater, particularly in a sub-genre where the uptight decorum of the upper middle-class is confronted with a larger-than-life, usually show-biz-connected character whose sheer force of personality serves as an agent of change. Indeed, in the program notes, director Bart DeLorenzo likens “Too Much Sun” to Kaufman and Hart’s “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” and it’s easy, too, to see some parallels to “Auntie Mame” in the unconventional Ms. Langham.
Such plays were usually comedies, of course, and so is Silver’s – although the humor, sharp and zany as it is, runs to the dark side.
The collection of characters he brings together for the summer in a beach house are a sophisticated, quick-tongued bunch, and they spend most of the play sparring at each other with zingers – to the good fortune of the audience, who get to hear the playwright’s renowned wit crackling through the dialogue. Audrey, of course, is the storm behind the calm; she’s a mess, on the surface, but somehow under all her deflective histrionics she is in complete control. Her daughter, Kitty, is – unsurprisingly – the opposite, with a composed, very put-together life that she is secretly starting to hate; her husband, Dennis, who has taken time off from work to write a novel, is an easy-going dreamer whose inner life runs deeper – and in a different direction – than his wife might know. Added to the mix are Lucas, a gay teenage boy from next door, his WASP-y widower of a father, and an agent’s assistant named Gil who really would rather have been a rabbi. The resulting clash of neuroses and complexes lays the ground for a comedy that is part New Yorker, part borscht-belt, and all Silver.
It would be easy enough to see the play as existing only at the humorous level – the one-liners never stop coming – but it’s the things the jokes reveal about the characters who speak them that takes the show to another layer, where things are allowed to get heavier. Silver gives us these revelations – the frustrated desires, the secret fears, the hidden resentments, the unresolved traumas – through the snappy wordplay of the first act; and then, when the story takes us back to these people, two months later, the waves of change that began with those revelations are poised to sweep over them – or sweep them away – and the consequences they face may be grimmer than they know. As the title metaphorically suggests, too much truth can get you burned.
It’s the humanizing effect of following these characters through the pain of transformation that lets us see past their almost-stereotypical surfaces. By the end, they are people like us, with a lot of issues around family, that we can connect with – we can forgive them from being privileged, and that allows the possibility, at least, of being ourselves a little transformed.
That possibility wouldn’t exist without the actors, who are superbly cast and well-guided by director DeLorenzo. This is especially true of Diane Cary, whose Audrey is the epitome of the temperamental diva and yet infused with the kind of recognizable vulnerability that grounds her completely; she’s a powerful force who knows it – and knows how to use it without looking like she’s using it. As daughter Kitty, Autumn Reeser is much more than a perfect foil; as we watch her struggle to maintain her rigid composure while her carefully-constructed world falls apart, she, too, becomes more than just a cliché. As husband Dennis, Bryan Langlitz walks a tightrope while maintaining a believable demeanor of calm, and manages to avoid the danger of letting his character lose our sympathies; Bailey Edwards, as twink-next-door Lucas, gives a great, layered performance that ultimately gives the play’s cathartic twist its power. Rounding out the cast are Clint Jordan, who infuses neighbor Winston with an authentic sense of wonder and nobility, and Joe Gillette, who deftly subverts every one of the stereotypes he personifies as the angsty nebbish, Gil.
With all the talent behind it – not the least of which belongs to its gifted playwright – there’s no surprise in the fact that “Too Much Sun” is a completely enjoyable theatrical experience, with just the right mix of the traditional and the edgy to make it feel both less and more “dangerous” than it is. What comes as a bonus is the reflective, almost uplifting calm that comes at the end of a play that started out seeming like a hard-edged, raucous farce.
If there’s a sour note in the mix, it’s the unfortunate treatment received by Lucas; without providing any spoilers, it’s fair to say that a gay character ends up suffering the most, and while his journey is no less truthful than any other character’s and he is arguably the most blameless of any of them, the role of the queer as “victim” in our popular entertainment has become, for some, a tiresome and painful reminder of the cultural repression of the past. Still, it’s a thread that’s finely woven into all the others the playwright has crafted in this tale of consequences, in which one momentous change sparks others, and the only glue that can hold the world together are the universal bonds of trust and family.
Silver himself said in an interview with the Blade that his script is “much more generous to its characters than I generally have a reputation for being.” His generosity, amplified through the work of DeLorenzo and his performers, shines through this production at the Odyssey, and gives us a play about transformation that acknowledges the pain that comes along with change even as it makes us laugh.