Dad ran off with an Ice Capades skater. Sister Angela hanged herself last Christmas. Brother Eddie’s bringing home his pregnant girlfriend Brenda. Mom’s unglued.
That leaves Joe, the moody younger brother, and little sister Farrah. They must try to make sense of all this--or at least to survive it. Farrah’s nickname, “Boo Boo,” is an indication of what she’s up against.
Welcome to “Out in America,” Katie Ford’s dark comedy at the Wallenboyd. Ford’s subject--the disintegration of the family--is an old standby, and her surreal style isn’t unprecedented either. Yet there is something fresh here.
By examining this crazed family primarily from the perspective of Boo Boo, a child of indeterminate age who’s played by an adult, Ford gives her tale an ingenuousness that creates both wacky humor and surprising poignancy. A Shepard or a Rabe might have made this material more galvanizing or harrowing; Ford aims for quieter effects.
Furthermore, her dialogue takes fascinating detours. Some of this must stem from her experience as a stand-up comic, yet she isn’t obsessed with getting the laugh.
Nor do the detours add clutter; she writes with economy. The second act isn’t as momentous as the first, but “Out in America” offers enough evidence to tag Ford as a playwright to watch.
Helene Udy’s staging enhances the play. The precise timing of a dinner-table scene evokes the image of an infernal eating machine. Yet just as much attention to detail is apparent in most of the individual performances.
Certainly, Hilary Shepard’s Boo Boo is compulsively watchable. Befitting someone named Farrah, this child’s hair is her most striking feature--but in her case, it’s a dark and tangled forest. She tries to civilize it with kitchen utensils. Boo Boo is occasionally reminiscent of a couple of Gilda Radner’s “Saturday Night Live” characters, but no commercial breaks interrupt Boo Boo’s agonies.
Scott Warner’s Joe begins the play with an almost sinister quality that’s gradually transmuted into something far more sympathetic. Likewise, we finally see Lisa Zane’s Brenda as more than a bubble-brain. But Jonathan Gries’ Eddie remains a tough guy, through and through.
Carri Dean Whitemore is too young to play the besieged mother, and Ford might try to sew Mom’s offstage shenanigans, involving a kidnaped soap opera star, more securely into the fabric of the play. The same could be said of the songs, sung intermittently by Ford’s sister, J. Cooper Ford.
But the sparse, predominantly red and black design fits well this tale of muffled passions. The designers were Gries, Sammy Basille and Kathy O’Donahue.
Performances are at 301 Boyd St., Fridays through Sundays at 8 p.m. through March 1, (213 851-3921.