A wealthy white family gathers at their family home by a lake for one last time. Throughout the course of the story, the pill-popping matriarch and her dysfunctional clan will argue, self-reflect, and suffer the consequences of things either said or unsaid, with plenty of reveals along the way. Before everyone leaves there’ll be tension among the siblings, declarations of hidden feelings, and a lengthy dinner table scene with food and wine, all prepared and served by the family help, the story’s single person of color.
If the setup sounds familiar, it’s intentional. The problems of the characters are not necessarily our problems, they’re privileged white people problems; self-inflicted dramas that can come as a result of having too much spare time, a bulging bank account, and generally getting what you want. The rest of us can’t indulge. We’re too busy simply getting through the day. Yet white audiences relate and are continually drawn to the subject because, well, the characters are white and they’re living a lifestyle that many would like to be living. Plus, white people love being near water. Look for an online blog called Stuff White People Like and go to item number 51. You’ll see it’s living by a lake.
In Stray Cat Theatre’s new production of Leah Nanako Winkler’s ferocious comedy Two Mile Hollow, now playing at Tempe Center for the Arts until February 2, the Donnellys are such a family. The movie legend father has died and the rest have gathered together at the sizable lakehouse in the Hamptons for one last time before the place is finally sold. There’s daughter Mary (Erin Kong) who has a secret desire for her step-brother, the successful TV actor Christopher (Vinny Chavez). Then there’s the other brother, the over-educated yet aimless Joshua (Kane Black) who develops a serious crush and believes he’s in love with the hired help, Charlotte (Samantha Hanna). And at the head of the dinner table is the recently widowed, pill-popping matriarch Blythe (Dolores Mendoza) whose racist remarks should clear the room every time she speaks. “This broth has too many spices,” Blythe complains to the help. “This is the Hamptons, not India.”
But there’s a twist in the telling, and you may have already noticed it by the names of the actors. This privileged white family is played by either American Asians or Latinos whose ill-suited, platinum blonde-wigs give the comical appearance of a cast from a poorly designed and clueless community theatre production.
Other more famous plays are given loudly defined knowing winks throughout. Opening with the sound of seagulls cawing, Mary is gazing across the water in what looks like a hypnotic state. When brother Joshua asks what she’s doing, in the way Chekov’s Nina called herself the seagull, Mary responds, “I was just pretending to be a bird.” And when mother Blythe’s pills are yanked from her, spilling and scattering across the dinner table, the reference comes straight from the contentious mother Violet in August Osage County.
It’s possible Winkler may have seen the 2014 film Last Weekend. This is where Patricia Clarkson played a family matriarch who gathers her sons to their Lake Tahoe home for one final weekend before the place is sold. The domestic help who prepares and serves the food is the cast’s person of color, the mother makes off-handed racist remarks that clear the room, and one of the sons is a successful TV star. Plus the self-indulgent angst everyone expresses is that of wealthy white people. It was awful, and if anything hammered the final nail in the genre’s coffin it was Last Weekend. But writer Winkler isn’t just skewering the conventions of ‘wealthy whites by the lake’ dramas, as in On Golden Pond, Our Place, and Five Mile Lake, she’s setting it on fire.
Much is funny. “My life is a sad empty husk with no corn,” complains Joshua. Plus there’s good invention with the hired-help Charlotte, the one character presented as less of a caricature than the Donnellys. Held back by her cultural role in a mostly white society, Charlotte dreams of a future in the entertainment industry. She’s working on an idea about a web series that puts the spotlight on the sidekick role; the overweight or multicultural best friend character who listens to the lead and returns with all the sassy remarks. It’s a concept with great potential, but when Charlotte presents it to Joshua he laughs it off as a terrible idea that no white person would like. “I know because I am one,” he states. As Mary will later tell Charlotte, “You shouldn’t trust us to give you anything. My people. We’ll take and we’ll take. And we are not very giving.”
The Friday night opening performance crowd laughed, and many laughed loudly, as you may do. The play needs it. Without that contagious, ambient feedback in the house, the overall style will fall flat. But for this reviewer, the play’s continual broad and relentless obvious strokes work against the piece. A writer who is creative and clear with a play’s structure and how it pokes the genre gives the material the power to effectively underline its message and to influence thought. Two Mile Hollow is a comedy born of cultural casting frustration and anger. The humor is hardly subtle; characters are underlined in extremely exaggerated, heavily executed over-the-top strokes. Winkler is swatting a fly with a mallet. As a result, the play’s message, obvious from the beginning, never develops into what you hope will become a multi-layered satire.
It’s not Stray Cat’s production that’s the problem, it’s the source material. Dramas of dysfunctional, privileged white people and their indulgent, often petty problems are here clearly given their marching orders. But the genre had already done it to itself in 2014 with Last Weekend without the help or the cultural casting twist of Two Mile Hollow.
Director Louis Farber approaches the play in the spirit that Winkler’s script dictates. And he’s working with a good cast. Erin Kong’s Mary is a comical standout. Plus, Aaron Sheckler’s scenic design of an expanding lake house is creatively effective, while Kristen Peterson’s sound design of not only cawing lakeside birds but of stormy, thunderous booms that coincide with the raging, heightened though cartoonish emotions of the characters is excellent. But when the point of the play is obvious and made within the first few moments, and that broadness never lets up, a running time of almost 110 minutes with intermission is too long. Imagine SNL’s spoof of daytime soaps The Californians as a two-hour special. At the very least, Two Mile Hollow would benefit from a hefty cut and presented without intermission.
Stray Cat Theatre’s production of Two Mile Hollow continues at Tempe Center for the Arts until February 2
Pictures Courtesy of John Groseclose