By Jordan Wright (Photo/Margot Schulman)
“Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill”? I’m still trying to puzzle out what the play’s title is supposed to mean when I walk into the theater.
It has nothing to do with autumn or waterfalls and even less to do with the decline of a city called Autrey Mill. And the word “pride” doesn’t begin to sum up the complex neuroses of this dysfunctional family.
So with little clue as to what to expect from playwright Paul Downs Colaizzo’s latest comic drama, I entered the theater as curious as a cat.
The play opens with a set furnished by Better Homes and Gardens — at least it looks that way. Carly is having a sit-down with her college-aged son, Chad, who has revealed that he’s gay and has a steady boyfriend. She is surprised and disdainful, though far more interested in exploring the dynamics of his relationship.
“Who pays the check?” she demands. It is a thinly veiled attempt to determine his role in the relationship. “If you pay the check, that makes you the man,” she chides him.
“You coulda been president,” she insists in yet another attempt to belittle him.
This is how Carly, a perfectionist, deals with news that she doesn’t want to hear: Sweep it under the rug and then put a more palatable spin on it. The approval of her country club cronies is far more important to Carly than a close relative’s feelings.
Having spent her entire adult life as a stay-at-home mom with an absentee husband who’s a traveling salesman, Carly has a convoluted set of values. A control freak — one that idealizes her family as she denies them their individualism — Carly compiles lists of appropriate girls for her sons to date. When asked, “What’s for dinner?” she describes her seven-course meal, ticking off the gourmet ingredients.
No, this is not a rewrite of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman,” though it has overtones of it (as well as the Sam Mendes movie, “American Beauty”). It is a wry, tongue-in-cheek satire on the decline of the American family in its modern suburbanite splendor.
It is a popular topic if ever there was. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina nailed it when she said, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Bulimia, homosexuality, incest, overeating, infidelity, emotional detachment, parental disapproval, alcohol and drugs: This is just your typical middle-class family, Colaizzo seems to say.
“We’re just letting our dreams die, mom,” Chad sagely observes.
“Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” is without nuance. It’s a straightforward, emotionally charged play loaded with piercing insults and laugh-out-loud satire.
But ultimately, it’s the humor that Colaizzo puts into this play that makes it palatable — the nail-in-the-coffin retorts, the relatable characters we can tsk-tsk from a comfortable distance. We are drawn to the train wreck and the exquisitely satisfying schadenfreude.
Christine Lahti plays Carly like a tail-swishing cat, ready to pounce. She is riveting in her depiction of the uptight, social doyenne.
Her performance is a perfect contrast to Wayne Duvall’s laidback Southern breadwinner, Louie, who balances out that tension with a restrained — yet effective — portrayal of a husband who harbors other ideas for his happiness. Terrific performances by Anthony Bowden, as Chad, and Christopher McFarland, as Tommy, who bears the brunt of the couple’s disappointment, round out the superb satire.
“Pride in the Falls of Autrey Mill” runs through December 8 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. For tickets and information, call 703-820-9771 or visit www.signature-theatre.org.