Playwright Tony Blake is not a novice at writing for television and for theatre, but it’s almost always a mistake for any writer to direct their own material. Oft-stated, the argument by writers for this faux pas is “no one knows the material better than I,” which can seem to be the case until we recognize that they might be a tad too close to it to know what the hidden messages are there that an outside eye might see better.
And when one’s material from the beginning is far too clichéd for comfort, it’s all the more reason to trust your baby to a qualified director’s eye.
So it is here, with Blake’s world premiere “Sunday Dinner,” wherein an Bronx-based Italian-American family – Mother (Sharron Shayne), Father (John Combs), older son (Kevin Linehan), youngest son, a Catholic priest (James Tabeek), Mom’s sister (Margaret Schultz), a pleasant cousin (Dennis Hadley), and oldest son’s bitter ex-wife (Meghan Lloyd) – giving us a traditional set-up for familial dysfunction.
There are two major issues in Blake’s script: jealousy between the two sons, the blowhard and the priest, and the family’s exposed homophobia when one of the clan turns out to be gay, a condition unknown to the family before this fateful dinner.
It’s not fair to the production to give away any more of the plot, but it is fair to notice that the play is way over-stuffed with ideas, none of which are successfully explored. Who slept with whom; who doesn’t handle conflict well; who cannot admit they are broke while indulging in devious and illegal activities; why the avenging ex is invited at all, and why her betrayal isn’t further explored; why the Catholic Church, which they all firmly believe in, is so ravaged by the playwright.
The dialogue per-se is not bad and the actors are all professional in bringing their under-written characters to life, but at just about two hours, the evening didn’t jell, creating conflicted feelings amongst the thoughtful audience, which would suggest that the material would be better suited for the limitations of soap-opera than live theatre.
On Jeff G. Rack’s attractive middle-class apartment-setting, and in Michèle Young’s deliberately downscale costumes, the evening moves quickly, but it is apparent in some of the meandering movements from the actors and straight lines when confronting each other, all show a director’s unawareness of pace and the value of silence amid chaos.
Blake’s play is far eclipsed by other examples of “the well-made” (read: obsolete) play. But Theatre 40 has developed a strong reputation for quality in its productions, so this one will not harm them in their continuance.
“Sunday Dinner” plays through February 16th, 2020, at Theatre 40, on the campus of Beverly Hills High School, 241 S. Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. 310.364.0535