STAGE REVIEW : 'Better Living' Strains for Significance

Another sick family, another black comedy. That's "Better Living" at the Matrix.

The problem isn't just the surfeit of similar plays. It's that most of them feature better writing.

George F. Walker (whose "Nothing Sacred" was at the Mark Taper Forum last season) strains mightily to make his play serve as a commentary on something larger. The result is more commentary than play. The dramatic values of this Actors for Themselves production are limited to a few moments of snide humor and rather mild menace.

Nora (Barbara Tarbuck) has run this family, more or less, ever since her husband vanished 10 years ago after a series of unsettling incidents. Now, two daughters are grown and the third is itching to leave home. But just as the empty nest looms, Nora is expanding her basement.

Her do-it-yourself construction plan sounds a little batty to her daughters, as does much of what she says. At intermission, I overheard someone's remark that Nora is reminiscent of a character on the old TV series "Soap." It's not an unjust comparison--and it's reflective of the staleness of the writing.

Still, Nora could use the extra space she is creating. The 17-year-old Gail (Viiu Spangler) is about to import a live-in boyfriend (Glenn Plummer). Mary Ann (Alexandra Gersten), 27 and a worry wart, has left her husband and returned to Nora, hoping to bring along her baby any day now.

Worse, Nora's brother Jack (Apollo Dukakis) brings word that her husband Tom, rumored to be dead, is alive and on his way back home. This troubles Nora and Jack, who had tried to knock Tom off, but it upsets daughter Elizabeth (Jane Kaczmarek), a high-strung 30-year-old attorney, even more. She vows to kill her old man.

In fact, when Tom (Arlen Dean Snyder) shows up, Elizabeth greets him with gunfire. At this point, the end of the third of 10 scenes, Walker lamely imposes a blackout so he doesn't have to explain what happens next. For whatever reason, by Scene 4, Elizabeth has reduced the intensity of her assault on Tom--from bullets to words.

The transition between the next two scenes brings an even worse example of lazy writing. Somehow, between scenes, Tom changes his tune: He is not really the late Tom, but a friend of Tom's who hopes to take his place. Though some of the family members remain hostile to him, they all accept his new story.

As the rest of the play hinges on this man's ability to take over the household, he and the play would be more a lot more credible if we saw him successfully explaining that he isn't who he claimed to be--and that Nora should disregard his initial ruse and allow him into her home. Yet in the exact spot in the script where this pivotal speech should be, Tom is offstage.

Instead, we hear Mary Ann establish that she is a neurotic by simply reciting a long list of things that worry her (a speech that anyone could write), and then we hear a murky account of the intruder's explanation secondhand, from Jack.

Tom gradually turns the household into an authoritarian state--with himself as the authority, preparing the household for the day when the Third World attacks. The play is a parable illustrating why people submit themselves to this kind of proto-fascist abuse--and how they can fight back.

The insights aren't fraudulent, but neither are they revelatory. Walker, aiming for a sense of mystery, settles for mere confusion. The play feels like a writer's and actors' exercise instead of a living, breathing organism.

Most of the cast members do their exercises well. Tarbuck walks a fine line between sense and nonsense, Kaczmarek undergoes a beautifully choreographed breakdown, Snyder has Tom's big hands and weaselly smile, and Dukakis is appealingly rueful. Director Peggy Shannon found a couple of chortles that aren't in the script.

Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio designed a kitchen that suggests clutter without actually gumming up the traffic. Angles are slightly askew, and the light that peeps out of the basement (Marianne Schneller did the lighting) adds a slightly nightmarish note.

At 7657 Melrose Ave., resuming Tuesday, playing Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., through Nov. 17. Tickets: $12.50; (213) 852-1445.

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