Thursday, June 03, 2010

Review of 'Sycamore Trees' at Arlington's Signature Theatre

Here is my review of Sycamore Trees, now having its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington.

Unhappy Families Are All Alike:
Signature Theatre’s 'Sycamore Trees' Needs Trimming
Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Sycamore Trees comes within a hair’s breadth of upending Leo Tolstoy’s dictum that “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Not quite, but nearly so.

Sycamore Trees is a musical play having its world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington, part of that troupe’s American Musical Voices Project, which has commissioned four new musicals (including last season’s adaptation of Edna Ferber’s Giant by Michael John LaChiusa). The songs are by composer-lyricist Ricky Ian Gordon, who co-wrote the book with Nina Mankin. The production is directed by Tina Landau.

How does Sycamore Trees turn Tolstoy’s observation on its head? By treading on such well-trod territory, as it examines the dysfunction in a post-war, Jewish, American, suburban, neurotic, angst-ridden, middle-class family from the 1940s through the 1990s, the play simply repeats so much of what we have heard before, whether in Alan King’s standup comedy of the 1950s, Portnoy’s Complaint in the 1960s, the films of Woody Allen, or Sarah Silverman’s mishegoss today.

We’ve seen this all on confessional television like Maury Povich and Jerry Springer. It’s just not new.

Sycamore Trees focuses on the family of Sydney and Edie Sylvan, who meet and fall in love at Grossinger’s (are we stepping near stereotypes here?), where Edie is a Borscht Belt songstress, just before Sydney goes off to fight World War II in Europe. The first of their three daughters, Myrna, is born in his absence. After he returns, Myrna is joined in rather quick succession by Theresa, Ginnie (Virginia), and Andrew.

The children are named for the actors from their parents’ favorite movie, The Best Years of Our Lives: Myrna Loy, Teresa Wright, Virginia Mayo, and Dana Andrews. (“Why didn’t you name me Dana?” Andrew asks. “Because Dana is a girl’s name,” answers Sidney. The exchange sets the tone for the father-son relationship.)

Sydney is shaken but not stirred by his wartime experience. He returns as a stolid man who will not talk about what he did or saw, and coldly (at least, that’s what the playwrights want us to believe) focuses on nothing more than earning a living and raising his family as another duty. Edie (Diane Sutherland) indulges him and sheds her own personality to live in his shadow.

Naturally, the three sisters and their gay brother each grow up to rebel against this repressively bourgeois existence in their own ways: alcohol, drugs, teen pregnancy, dating “bad boys,” becoming poets, musicians, and artists.

To reveal how these rebellions turn out would be to reveal too much for those who go to see this play with fresh eyes.

I will, however, throw the spotlight on one terrific line. After Theresa (Judy Kuhn) delivers a breathless anti-Reagan rant (during the 1980s segment), Ginnie (Farah Alvin) stops her in her tracks by saying, “Who is going to care about you when all you do is get on everybody’s nerves?” The line is not only unexpected, given the trajectory of the scene, it sets up an epiphany for Ginnie as she suddenly finds a new grounding in her life.

Ricky Ian Gordon’s score is the best part of Sycamore Trees. It is rich, tuneful, and drives the action forward.

Each song reflects the time of its setting – for example, “Ours,” a lighthearted love duet for Edie and Sydney, could have been lifted wholly from a 1940s Broadway musical revue – or, even better, reflects the inner thoughts of the characters.

The most fully realized of these may be Sydney’s interior monologues, “Pigeons” (in which he expresses his bittersweet thoughts about leaving densely-populated New York for a new life in the Long Island suburbs) and “Father’s Song” (in which he laments, “I never meant to be an ogre,” saying credibly that he is not a rotten father no matter what his neurotic kids may believe).

The success of these numbers is due in no small part to Marc Kudisch, whose Sydney is the rock on which Sycamore Trees is anchored. He plays Sydney as an organic, three-dimensional character in a show that is overtly theatrical, with the artifice made so bare that when the actors take the stage, one’s first thought is that this looks like “Seven Characters in Search of an Author.”

Another perfectly placed number is “Self Help,” a patter song in which the characters complain about their addictions. It provides much needed comic relief in a second act that otherwise tumbles toward a glum conclusion. That Theresa leads the song and eggs on the audience with a microphone in her hand (much like the aforementioned Povich and Springer) demonstrates that the director is not perturbed by irony, even if it is fleetingly utilized.

One of the major problems with Sycamore Trees is the tendency of the creators to ladle on too many effects to achieve a single emotion or idea.

For instance, we know within the first 30 seconds of the show that Andrew is gay, signaled with a subtle gesture. Do we really need to hear the story about the elementary school seducer who ruined his reputation at an early age?

Not to pick on Andrew (Tony Yazbeck), but his second-act monologue about the death of his partner, David (Matthew Risch), is nearly interminable. It could be cut by a third or more without losing its emotional impact.

Director Landau also inserts characters into scenes where they do not belong, such as when Myrna (Jessica Molaskey) hovers around Sydney during his “Father’s Song” soliloquy at the foot of the stage.

It seems that Landau never fails to use two gestures or images or expressions when one will do the job.

The source of these annoyances may be that co-writer Nina Mankin also served as the production’s dramaturg.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a dramaturg is a person whose job it is to advise the director (and sometimes the playwright) about, for instance, questions of authenticity in a period piece (regarding costumes or language). The dramaturg should also be free to critique the play’s text and direction and thus should be detached from the initial product or project.

A co-bookwriter simply cannot have the kind of detachment that a dramaturg – and a playwright and director – deserve. She (or he) lacks the capacity to step to the side and look at the production autonomously.

It’s as though a novelist acted as his own editor.

With some trimming – mostly of the book, not of the score – Sycamore Trees could emerge as a major new work of musical theatre.

Sycamore Trees runs through June 13 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, Virginia. Show times are Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets for Sycamore Trees range from $52 to $76 and are available by calling Ticketmaster at 703-573-7328 or visiting Group discounts are available for parties of ten or more by contacting Jackie Carl at

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