So you think your family is nuts? The fraternal train wreck of Gary Lennon's "A Family Thing," now having its world premiere in an Echo Theater Company production at Stage 52, will have you feeling Norman Rockwell-y about even those relatives whose loose-cannon remarks make you want to dive under the dining room table during the holidays.
Compared with Lennon's crew — one's an addict, one's a felon, one's a suicidal writer — most of us can claim fairly normal pedigrees. Or at least we can be grateful that we're not reliving a version of the Cain and Abel story, relocated to the mean streets of Martin Scorsese's New York.
This twisted comedy, fiercely performed by a strong cast under Chris Fields' direction, follows the turmoil of the Burns brothers, three guys who grew up in Hell's Kitchen before Hell's Kitchen became a heavenly dining option for Broadway theatergoers. Midtown Manhattan may have changed, but for these New Yorkers the brimstone and pitchforks are still ubiquitous.
When we first meet Sean (Sean Wing), a gay TV writer who has quit drinking but can't shake his family's pathological clutches, he's preparing to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. He's talked down by a handsome stranger who happens to be a life coach. (Comedy, per its official bylaws, makes no apologies for ludicrous coincidences.)
Cute, scared and in need of a steadying hand, Sean explains to Joe (Darryl Stephens) that he's ending his life because his brother Jim (Johnny Messner) is getting out of jail and has vowed to kill him for being a homosexual. (Homosexual isn't quite the word, but this is a family newspaper.)
Jim apparently also has it in for his older brother, Frank (Saverio Guerra in frenetic overdrive), a coke-snorting, hooker-abusing runt with anger management issues that just cost him his job. To save his own skin a few years back, Frank ratted Jim out to the police, and unfortunately for him, Jim has had plenty of time to carefully plot his revenge while twiddling his thumbs in the clink.
As the sibling standoff draws near, the brothers get entangled with bedmates who are drawn to their crazy intensity and crazy enough themselves not to heed the danger signs flashing in neon before them. Joe is the most together of the lot, though you have to wonder why a smart and therapeutically oriented black man would put up with the racist inanity of Sean's family just a short while after deciding to become Sean's lover rather than his counselor. (How good in the sack could Sean be?)
No online dating service could come up with a person as ideal for Jim as Louise (Elizabeth Regen), an ex-con from the Bronx with a tough mouth and a dress as tight as sausage skin who works at an agency that finds employment for recently released prisoners. And Frank has found a druggy refuge with a kindly prostitute (Maria Cina) from the ongoing hostilities with his wife, Liz (Andrea Grano), whose manner is as pleasant as a tequila hangover.
Dr. Phil probably wouldn't give his blessing to these unions, but then healthy intimacy is understandably difficult for a trio of brothers raised, as wordsmith Sean so carefully puts it, by a "bipolar stripper" mother who "splatted" herself jumping off a building and a father with a murder record and "a degree in alcoholism and child abuse."
Lennon, whose play "Blackout" was turned into the film "Drunks" starring Richard Lewis, seems partly inspired here by the revved up verbal antics of Stephen Adly Guirgis' Broadway comedy "The Mother… With the Hat." The characters clash at top volume, though the language Lennon supplies them with isn't as profanely original as that employed by Guirgis' gang.
Lennon has a weakness for punch lines that sound like punch lines and put-downs that clobber with the flamboyant staginess of professional wrestlers. But he compensates by knowing his characters well and giving them opportunities to reveal themselves through their instinctive reactions.
"A Family Thing" cooks up a suspenseful plot, but the play is at its best in its seemingly unplanned moments, when the dialogue isn't being forcibly dialed up and the actors are allowed to behave rather than grandstand.
The best laughs, not surprisingly, occur spontaneously, when no one is trying to wring guffaws out of the audience. There's no need to overplay a character as flagrantly comic as Louise, who, as Regen demonstrates, doesn't need shtick to be funny.
Echo Theater Company is known for its superb ensembles. Fields, the artistic director, has built up a rich community of acting talent, and his cast is eminently watchable.
Especially notable are Wing's sensitive hipster Sean and Messner's bruisingly tenderhearted Jim. They manage to make the ending seem touching despite its pat sentimentality.
Yes, for all its wildness, "A Family Thing" has a heart. But don't expect too much mushiness from these dysfunctional poster children, taught from their alphabet days to go straight for the jugular.
'A Family Thing'
Where: Stage 52, 5299 W. Washington Blvd., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 17.
Contact: (877) 369-9112 or http://www.echotheatercompany.com
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes