Review – Rules for Living – National Theater

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I am mystified by the English concept of the embarrassment comedy, a la Abigail’s Party. To me there is little humor to be found in people spending time together being immensely uncomfortable. However, I do not come from a country where embarrassment is glorified as part of the national identity; thinking on it, Americans’ lack of embarrassment is probably one of the little things that makes them so unpopular (or, indeed, objects of comedy) in the UK.

Yet, here is Rules for Living, a new play substantially built around the same concept as Abigail’s Party – a family (and a stranger) spent an extraordinarily uncomfortable time together preparing for and then having a party, and we laugh and cringe as they make asses of themselves – only this time it was funny. Sam Holcroft has a strong idea of what it is that makes families tick, what the resentments are they build up over the years, how they learn to accept pathological behavior (of various sorts) as normal – and he knows we’ve also had our own experiences with this. So this time, instead of having us wait until the great reveal to discover the source of people’s various miseries, we’re given “the scores on the doors,” or in this case on the wall: a physical display on the set of what it is that makes these people tick. The playwright has told us, but this puts us into a privileged position: we know what the characters do and don’t allow themselves to do, but the other characters do not. So we’re now able to tell when a certain character is lying, when another wants to be confrontational and can’t, and so on. For most of the first act, this means we laugh as we see the characters’ own constraints limit them; it’s almost a bit like a sit com in that the chuckles come so fast and uniformly, and from identifiable triggers on stage.

Things took what to me felt like a darker turn in the second act, as family secrets began to come out, the first one being the biggest (and the one having the most immediate impact): the father/grandfather, whose arrival everyone has been preparing for, suddenly appears on stage and we discovered he has had a [SPOILER ALERT] horrifying health change that his wife has been hiding from the rest of the family. Holcroft tries to weave this truly devastating event back into a comic narrative quite deftly, by raising the stakes of people’s misbehavior (drinking and pill popping all happen but are, somehow, laughable); horrible backstory comes out that will probably result in family ties being undone; and yet we don’t cringe, but enjoy watching this family fall apart fantastically. I mean, there’s a food fight, and the characters are actually awarded points (on the score board) for being terrible to each other and acting like children.

But what I found just utterly amazing about this is the practically swept aside story of dealing with a person who’s lost the ability to talk and has lost their memory. John Rogan is devastating as the impaired patriarch; you can see he’s thinking behind that partially immobilized face, and I believed that I understood what he was saying when he was talking to his wife and his sons. What frustrated me particularly is how quickly the sons gave up on trying to understand him; admittedly, for comic pacing, if a lot of that had happened, we would have gone way off course – but I know it’s possible and I hated that they weren’t trying more. And then there’s a situation of inappropriate sexual behavior which I have NEVER seen on stage and which I also wish could have been dealt with in more depth rather than being used as a springboard for more comedy. But that’s me.

And you know what? It was still a really good show, a solid new comedy with some good bones to support it; a bit shallow in some of the characterization (Maggie Service got a bum deal with Carrie), but still a good ride and absolutely worth the 15 quid I paid for my slightly restricted view seat. The comedy was fluffy, but the issues driving it were rock solid; and I was in the mood for a good laugh. With luck it’ll get a transfer and an opportunity for more people to enjoy it.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, June 12, 2015. It continues through July 8th.)

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