Chicago’s ‘Relatively Close’ is Concrete Proof That Death is Easy, Comedy is Hard

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HollywoodChicago.com Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 2.0/5.0
Rating: 2.0/5.0

CHICAGO – Forget the Year of the Rat. This is the year of the dysfunctional family reunion.

With Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama “August: Osage County,” the Broadway remounting of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and the Tony-sweeping revival of “Gypsy,” 2008 has been saturated with some of the finest performances of relational drama that theatre has seen in years.

Now comes “Relatively Close,” which is a new work by Chicago playwright James Sherman that has just as great of aspirations as the previous three yet is too convoluted to achieve any of them.

The show, which is a Victory Gardens co-world premiere with Illinois State University, tells the story of the Levy sisters from Chicago. They are three women who set out (with bitter spouses in tow) to the Michigan lake house of their recently deceased parents to settle the affairs of the estate.

From left: Dexter Zollicoffer plays Arthur, Usman Ally is Yousef, Laura T. Fisher plays Beth and Penny Slusher is Jan in Chicago playwright James Sherman's newest family comedy Relatively Close, which runs in Chicago through July 13, 2008
From left: Dexter Zollicoffer plays Arthur, Usman Ally is Yousef, Laura T. Fisher plays Beth and Penny Slusher is Jan in Chicago playwright James Sherman’s newest family comedy “Relatively Close”.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren

We are told (but never shown) that the sisters are radically different from each another despite having supposedly been close in their youth. This proves to be the first pitfall in Sherman’s script.

The eldest sister, Jan, represents your typical money-hungry, pompous and greedy Republican. She’s running for alderman of the 46th Ward. This is a character development that clearly proved to Sherman that his script should be replete with cliché “Chicago-is-a-dirty-politics-city” jokes.

Jan’s husband, Yousef, is unfortunately about as identical to Jan as Mary-Kate Olsen is to Ashley Olsen. Next we have the middle sister, Beth, who’s a promiscuous librarian who has had more husbands than Elizabeth Taylor. The youngest sister, Marlene, is by far the most enjoyably nuanced character to watch.

From left: Wendi Weber is Marlene, Penny Slusher plays Jan and Laura T. Fisher plays Beth in James Sherman's Relatively Close
From left: Wendi Weber is Marlene, Penny Slusher plays Jan and Laura T. Fisher plays Beth in “Relatively Close”.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren

Renting her body as host to almost every psychotic drug on the market, Marlene is a lovable albeit socially inept and precocious young woman. She even goes so far as to use a puppet – Lucy the Slut (wait, I mean Lilly) – as a means to become acquainted with new faces.

The plot’s central conflict revolves around the sisters’ inability to decide on a fate for their not-always-beloved lake house. Focused on the monetary value, Jan wants to sell it and horde the commission.

Beth yearns to turn it into an artist colony (though we are never told why) and Marlene – overwhelmed by its sentimental value – wants it to stay in the family.

After this somewhat ambiguous and underdeveloped central plot point gets established, the next two hours of the show run amok with stereotypical sisterly grudges, paper-thin jokes and inter-family affairs. Even the setup of the family is formulaic: a Jewish family who spends more time in therapy than it does at Shabbat dinner. Woody Allen made that work with wit.

Unfortunately, Sherman chooses to spend more of his time on hackneyed jokes than on plot and character development. That’s a shame, too, because the issue of siblings dealing with a parent’s death and leftover affairs has the potential to lead to great storytelling.

From left: Wendi Weber plays Marlene, Laura T. Fisher is Beth, Daniel Cantor plays Ron, Dexter Zollicoffer is Arthur, Penny Slusher plays Jan and Usman Ally porrays Yousef in Relatively Close
From left: Wendi Weber plays Marlene, Laura T. Fisher is Beth, Daniel Cantor plays Ron, Dexter Zollicoffer is Arthur, Penny Slusher plays Jan and Usman Ally porrays Yousef in “Relatively Close”.
Photo credit: Liz Lauren

The biggest issue with the script – aside from Sherman’s seemingly never-ending supply of stock characters – is its jokes. That’s a problem because it’s supposed to be a comedy. With typical “white-guy-trying-to-be-black” lines, jeers at “Brokeback Mountain” and jabs at Yiddish grandmothers, all of the jokes almost seem to be taken from a recent “Saturday Night Live” episode.

Beth’s husband (an African-American scholar) at one point tells Marlene’s adulterous spouse: “I’m black enough to kick your ass!” Lines like these were not only flat but they were uncomfortable.

In addition to Marlene’s husband (Ron), Beth’s teenage son (Dylan) is another character of a “white guy trying to be black”. When not frequently bustin’ out with the latest Kanye West lyrics, he is whining his emo way through the lack of Internet access and iPod accommodations at the cabin.

These are the type of punch lines and characters that would ring true to a community theatre audience rather than a Chicago theatre audience.

However, despite Sherman’s struggling book, the actors give more-than-admirable performances. Wendi Weber valiantly stands out as Marlene: the cute and awkward ventriloquist sister. Though having much more to work with than her co-stars, Weber portrays Marlene with the proper and endearing idiosyncrasies her character necessitates.

She is a breath of fresh air to the piece, and even when dealing with sometimes mechanical scenes, she knocks every line out of the ballpark. Dennis Zacek’s directing and John Stark’s set design are also commendable. They both work in tight harmony to evoke a natural feel and setting that serve as a perfect vessel through which the Levy family dismantles.

Ultimately, however, the “Relatively Close” strong points can’t overcome its floundering writing. As much as I would like to, this is one family vacation on which I would rather not embark.

“Relatively Close” runs every day of the week except for Mondays at various times through July 13, 2008 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre at 2433 N Lincoln Ave. in Chicago. For tickets or more information, visit here or call 773-871-3000.


For a complete listing of all shows and reviews in Chicago, visit our partner TheatreInChicago.com. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Alissa Norby

By ALISSA NORBY
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
alissa@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2008 Alissa Norby, HollywoodChicago.com

Mally's picture

This is one of Dennis

This is one of Dennis Zacek’s funniest plays, which made me laugh out loud when I watched it, and I’d still watch and enjoy it again.

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