• U.S.

Evil Begins At Home

3 minute read
William A. Henry III




THE BOTTOM LINE: A satire of corruption in everyday life has lost its edge in crossing the Atlantic.

“EVERYONE STEALS A LITTLE” seems to be the mantra of the McCracken clan. Mother pilfers desk supplies from her office. Daughter shoplifts for “something to do” and to finance her adolescent drug taking. Brother-in- law is on the fiddle at work and with the tax office. Son-in-law traffics in “surplus” merchandise from the family factory. Even the clan’s stern paterfamilias Jack, for all his talk of rectitude, is not above bribing a prying private investigator with a juicy no-bid security contract.

All these people see themselves as morally normal — and playwright Alan Ayckbourn, Britain’s leading comedist, plainly thinks they are. Although the corruption depicted in A Small Family Business embraces fraud, the Mafia and murder, it takes place in bland, beige, suburban houses where the residents are preoccupied with recipes, hemlines and their dogs. And while the accents are recognizably British, the decor and, by implication, the bad behavior would seem right at home in Middle America.

When the play debuted in London in 1987, where it was seen as a satire of me-first excesses of the Thatcher years, its central joke struck this reviewer as peculiarly English. For centuries Britons portrayed Italy as the epitome of treachery and mayhem; in this tale, although the McCrackens are enmeshed with five Italian gangster brothers (played by the same quick-changing actor), the real savagery is British born and bred. London’s production, directed by the author, had the advantage of Michael Gambon in the lead. His Jack McCracken was a true reformer, alight with the intensity of a zealot, and his pain at being maneuvered into compromise upon compromise was almost unbearable to watch.

The staging that arrived on Broadway last week mutes both of these satiric elements. The Rivetti brothers, as played by Jake Weber, in no way call to mind the U.S. style of mafiosi. And in the pivotal role of Jack, Brian Murray is a tower of Jell-O, reeking of insincerity from his entry, peevish rather than apocalyptic in uprooting family scandal. Director Lynne Meadow, who vastly improved on Ayckbourn’s staging of his best play, Woman in Mind, here reduces a cry of outrage to an amiable snigger. The haunting final image, of the adolescent daughter frozen in narcotic guilt, becomes a mere echo of a deeper work that is otherwise nowhere to be seen.

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