By Kyle Osborne
They say that the secret to comedy is timing, but in the case of ‘Pride In The Falls Of Autrey Mill,’ world premiering at Signature Theatre, just as important as timing is casting. It’s impossible to imagine Paul Downs Colaiizzo’s pitch black comedy without Christine Lahti as its heart and (lack of?) soul. To watch her character disintegrate within her too rich and too thin exterior is as invigorating as it is depressing, for one is awestruck by the actress and simultaneously disheartened by her character’s desperate attempt to keep a crumbling family together. The witty, yet realistic banter that swings from character to character is often hilarious.
Wait–how can this hand basket on the express train to Hell be a comedy?”
It just is. Gut-busting, schnoz-snorting, tears-flowing laughs come early and often in this one act, set in the well manicured home in a ritzy suburban neighborhood. It’s a place where everyone knows your name, but mostly so they can drop it while gossiping about you to the other neighbors. Who has the nicest lawn? The biggest boat? The best flowers? Ah, the best flowers belong to Carly (Lahti) and you’d have thought she’s won an Oscar, instead of first place in the neighborhood flower competition. Carly is living for the next day, the day when she, her visiting adult sons and her frequently absent husband will gather for a photo for the newsletter, flowers in hand.
But that’s tomorrow. Right now, Carly has just been told by her younger son that he is gay and has a serious partner. The news does not sit well for control-freak Carly, not so much because she hates gay people–more because this screws up what she has already planned out for herself and her son’s not too distant future. The other son, well-educated but an unmotivated schlub, has announced that he will not get his law degree (he’s this close to getting it) but rather will continue the job he loves as a manager of a kind of Chuck-E-Cheese type of place. Far below Mom’s expectations, to say the least.
And to add to her trauma, the sons want her to be the one to break the news to Dad, a silent, stocky man, deftly played by Wayne Duvall. Duvall’s economical performance packs a punch–rarely will you see an actor convey so much, while saying so little. Just his physicality alone tells us so much about the man.
I think I’m going to stop short of revealing any more of the plot–not because you can’t see things coming, but the way the actors peel back the layers is so satisfying to watch, it’s better to experience it without being told.
A few quibbles-this really should be a two-act play. It unfurls at such a wonderful, deliberate pace, that its frenetic final third feels like too much stuffed into the allotted time. Better to have had the just-as-important revelations of the final lap happen as organically as the earlier ones did. They deserve to not be back-loaded and rushed. Not to say that the scenes are not acted with just as much commitment.
Also, I guess the falling lamps, although clever, are a bit too on the nose–the house’s broken garage door and faulty lights serving as obvious metaphors for the inhabiting family.
It’s not often I say this, but I’d love to see ‘Pride In The Falls’ of Autrey Mills’ again soon. As dysfunctional as they are, I liked peering through the windows at their lives. Like a nosy next door neighbor.
‘Pride In The Falls Of Autry Mill’ continues at Signature Theatre through December 8. Running time is about one hour and 45 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets ($40 to $94) are available via Signature’s website.