Euripides wasn’t much of a yock-meister, but his Medea is getting most of the laughs in Nicky Silver’s new supposed-to-be-a-comedy, Too Much Sun. Now at the Vineyard in a grim production directed by Mark Brokaw, it stars the resourceful Linda Lavin as Audrey Langham, a theatuh actress of a certain age and (self-)regard, who, after a life spent playing “Miss Hannigan in January, Mother Courage in the spring,” finally loses it during tech rehearsals in Chicago for her turn as the filicidal princess. Medea’s rage is as nothing compared to Audrey’s; she turns on the director (“Every idea that comes out of your head is crap!”), the costume designer (“What the hell am I wearing!? Am I waiting for the Mardi Gras parade to pass?”), and finally herself for having wasted years “saying words that aren’t mine in imaginary rooms.” Off she storms, leaving not just Corinth and Chicago behind but, she seems to promise, her career as well.
Unfortunately, that all takes place in the play’s brief prologue, which offers the last sustained laughter of the evening. As Audrey descends upon her estranged daughter, Kitty, summering with her callow husband on Cape Cod, the play descends into a muddle of a sitcom even Lavin can’t save it from, creating complications that are somehow both obvious and outré. (Call them camplications.) The husband is trying to write a science-fiction novel but is distracted by a young pothead neighbor. The pothead’s rich father brings out the gold-digging Betty Grable in Audrey. An underling sent by Audrey’s agent to retrieve her turns out to be a rabbi manqué. And Kitty must learn a family secret that will finally let her forgive her neglectful, narcissistic mother.
Silver has a knack for such mothers; Lavin was nominated for a Tony playing another of them two years ago in The Lyons. But self-dramatizing characters, even when they’re beautifully realized, don’t get playwrights off the hook. What Silver himself is dramatizing in Too Much Sun is far from clear. (As is the meaning of the title.) It may simply be, as it was in his early plays Pterodactyls and Raised in Captivity, the desperate absurdity of family, a theme to which he brought a matching absurdist style. Like Christopher Durang, a major influence, he did not seek to reproduce realistic behavior but to investigate an idea of character based entirely on unmediated needs, as if everyone everywhere were Jerry Lewis. The point was sometimes too obvious, but the method was coherent — and often hilarious.
More recently Silver (like Durang, for that matter) has been experimenting with characters who have at least some awareness of social constraint, or those, like Audrey, whose actorly narcissism is arguably naturalistic. (At one point Audrey commissions an ice sculpture based on her eight-by-ten glossy.) But Silver’s attempts to backfill such characters with explanations for their monstrosity confuse the tone disastrously. The audience is asked at the same time to enjoy Audrey’s outrageousness and have sympathy for the life that produced it. This shouldn’t be possible, but Lavin succeeds, acting her way out of each trap she’s put in with the kind of concentration and groundedness that make the difference between behaviors that are mere adornments and those that reveal human nature. Sometimes this involves tossing her fabulous hair or spreching and spraying the German lyrics of “Surabaya Johnny.” (Don’t ask.) Or dialing up the seductive charm while singing “Blue Moon.” Or bending words in midair as if in response to unseen thermal currents. Indeed, she’s an actress with an unusually broad temperature range, and brilliant control of the middle ground where warmth and coolness merge.
But because she can only rescue her character moment by moment, the result lacks cumulative coherence or power. Too Much Sun is thus more like a cabaret of her talents than a play. (Silver wrote the part for her; “Langham” isn’t very far from “Lavin.”) The rest of the cast, which includes the usually solid Jennifer Westfeldt as Kitty, fares worse, stuck trying to rationalize characters who lack even Audrey’s flimsy excuse for their apparent randomness. Kitty, a teacher, has more about-faces per square scene than the cast of Glee put together.
I appreciate that Silver is trying to mix his batter in new ways; it’s important for a playwright to avoid formulas, and commendable that a theater commits to him through thick and thin. (Too Much Sun is the ninth Silver play to debut at the Vineyard.) But not every experiment works, and some are not worth wasting Linda Lavin on. Maybe the problems of Too Much Sun called for Audrey Langham’s solution in Chicago, if not Medea’s in Corinth.
Too Much Sun is at the Vineyard Theatre through June 22.