The 30 greatest American family dramas

American playwrights know how to keep it in the family

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20

Picnic

Like his contemporary and sometime friend Tennessee Williams, William Inge was at his best when writing about women, as in this portrait of a Midwestern single mother and her two daughters—a beauty and a tomboy—whose lives are unsettled by a sexy young man. Although Picnic won the 1953 Pulitzer Prize and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the playwright was unhappy with it; his revised version, Summer Brave, ran briefly on Broadway in 1975, two years after his suicide.—AF

19

Awake and Sing!

“Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust,” says the book of Isaiah, and when the Clifford Odets classic opened in 1935, that “dust” was the Depression-era Bronx. In Awake and Sing, Odets, the ultimate political poet, painted a naturalistic portrait of a struggling Jewish clan, and set the new taste for realistic social critique and any number of overbearing-mama plays. More important still was that other “family” at the play’s heart: Odets wrote it for his fellow Group Theatre members, and actors like Stella Adler and Sanford Meisner would set the style for American acting even unto the seventh generation.—HS

18

Brighton Beach Memoirs

Last seen on Broadway in an all-too-brief 2009 revival directed by David Cromer, Neil Simon’s 1983 memory play is a skillful blending of misery and whimsy, told from the perspective of wisecracking Eugene Morris, who regards his cash-strapped Jewish household as material for a brilliant future writing career. Eugene is an outsider and a chronicler of his Brooklyn clan and its discontents. There’s plenty of sentimental sepia in Simon’s portrait, but welcome flashes of lust and irreverence too. Call it Odets with titty jokes.—DC

17

The Marriage of Bette and Boo

Christopher Durang leaves no illusion standing in this rock-em-sock-em comedy about the guignol of modern familial affection—dead babies are tossed willy-nilly in the air, and the sacred cows of religion, mental illness and death go flying with them. Durang’s vicious farce, a look back by an embittered narrator at a terrible upbringing ringed ’round by a plague of selfish or mad adults, oscillates between bumptious hilarity and sudden, vertiginous pain. It’s indictment of parents—all parents, really—and despite a host of imitators, no play since has done so much to make simply having a family seem like the original sin.—HS

16

House of Blue Leaves

So much zaniness takes place in John Guare’s 1971 black comedy—wild stuff involving Pope Paul VI, a deaf Hollywood starlet, three nuns and a terrorist bombing—you would think the play was about anything but family. And yet the farce is firmly anchored in the marital unhappiness of amateur songwriter Artie Shaughnessy’s household. Deeply frustrated by having to care for his mentally unbalanced wife, Bananas, zookeeper Artie grows undeniably beastly and finds a mistress in Bunny Flingus (she tempts him with the promise of home cooking). Meanwhile, soldier-son Ronnie has gone AWOL (en route to Vietnam) and is hiding out in his own bedroom, building a bomb.—DC

15

August: Osage County

It could have ended up an overstuffed grab bag of dysfunctional tropes—pill-popping mother, suicidal father, miserable children, vicious grudges, infidelity, incest, insanity and a passel of vulgar, nosy relations—but Tracy Letts is too damn good a writer to lose control. His rollicking 2007 tragicomedy veered giddily from eloquent rage over the damage done by the misnamed Greatest Generation to hilarious screeds, one-liners and put-downs. The Steppenwolf Theatre Company world premiere will be hard to top in future revivals. Oklahoma turned out to be anything but OK.—DC

14

A Delicate Balance

Alcohol and vitriol lubricate the gears of Edward Albee’s ominous 1966 dramedy, in which the suburban home of an upper-crusty couple is invaded by a whinging adult daughter (escaping a fourth failed marriage) and a pair of close friends (fleeing an intangible sense of dread). The original production, with Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, won the first of Albee’s three Pulitzers; Lincoln Center’s revival 30 years later earned plaudits for stars Rosemary Harris, George Grizzard and Elaine Stritch. In the writer’s discomfiting family portrait, the nest seems to have always been a little empty.—AF

13

The Orphans' Home Cycle

Horton Foote’s three-part, nine-play magnum opus is actually a lifetime of work systematized into a cycle—adapting many decades’ worth of plays (some in condensed versions) and stage-adapted screenplays to trace the life of Horace Robedaux, buffeted by the rough winds of the 20th century. Foote’s trademark humanism suffuses the whole, a thing both very large (it includes the flu epidemic and World War I) and incredibly particular. Foote’s own father was the pattern for Robedaux, but in this critically beloved saga, it’s the playwright’s plainspoken empathy that sets the pattern for the rest of us.—HS

12

The Skin of Our Teeth

Humankind is the family in Thornton Wilder’s 1942 metatheatrical classic, last seen starring John Goodman and Kristen Johnston in Central Park in 1998. The play revolves around the Antrobus family, led by inventor George (he patents the wheel and the lever). The New Jersey–based clan survives the Ice Age, flood, wars and other calamities of biblical proportion. Wilder’s epic allegory—with his signature cosmic-meets-quotidian touches and talky Stage Manager—mixes domestic comedy with witty philosophical ruminations on the value and viability of our race.—DC

11

All My Sons

Arthur Miller’s 1947 moral drama, about a self-important industrialist whose factory produced defective wares during World War II, owes equal debts to Sophocles and Ibsen in its exploration of guilt, denial and responsibility. (One of the Keller family’s sons died in the war; the other must gradually accept the reality of his father’s misdeeds.) Miller’s first commercial success, the play retains its power to provoke us into clearer sight, as demonstrated by Simon McBurney’s beautiful 2008 Broadway revival, which starred John Lithgow as the munitions maker and Dianne Wiest as his denial-dwelling wife.—AF


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12 comments
James M
James M

I agree with the top end of your list, for the most part. But why people continue to revere Thornton Wilder as a playwright completely befuddles me. His dramaturgy is flawed, his sense of rounded characterisation the dramatic equivalent of tone deaf; he didn't even write that many plays. He is basically a novelist, his use of the narrator akin to the omniscient voice in fiction. His two plays, mentioned here, focus on highlights,  they do not feature neatly-structured scenes. Tennessee Williams commented that Wilder had never had a conjugal relationship, and I think this is reflected in his rather  bloodless portrayal of family life. This is equally apparent in his screenplay for Shadow of a Doubt.


On the other hand, the inclusion of Buried Child is delightful. Sticks and Bones might substitute for Topdog/Underdog; but the list puts the classics in the right order, I think. Well, no, I think Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is more substantial in every way than is The Glass Menagerie.

NewKeith16
NewKeith16

Great list. but there is one great play missing: Tennessee Williams' A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE!!! I don't know why you didn't include it.

Rebecca
Rebecca

Surprised not to see Next to Normal on this list.

Adam Feldman
Adam Feldman

Thanks for the comment, Francis. But I think your count is slightly off: I see three African-American families (Fences, Raisin, Topdog) plus one by an Asian-American playwright that was originally cast as African-American (Lear). What Asian or Latino or Native American plays would you propose we had included in lieu of the ones on this list?

Francis Jue
Francis Jue

30 family plays. 28 white families. 2 African American families. Absolutely no representation of Asians, Latinos, Native Americans. Rather than this list, I'd love TimeOut to write an article about diverse playwrights.

Don Fleming
Don Fleming

For the most part they are all about dysfunctional families so what are we saying with this when we call them the greatest "Family" plays? - - - - I actually agree with the choices but we are glorifying conflict and pain. And where is "The Royal Family" or "You Can't Take It With You" , "Ah Wilderness?' - - Oh well Many will scream at me.

David Cote
David Cote

Hi Howard: Thanks! Yes, as I note in the introduction to the list we were aware that many of top 10 are older works. I think it may be that genre might have had its heyday in the last century... but who knows what the next 50 years will bring?

Coni Ciongoli Koepfinger
Coni Ciongoli Koepfinger

Cool list- I have seen about half and read about 2/3 ---Thanks, you just gave me some summer reading to help me paint myself a bigger picture ... :)

 Howard Sherman
Howard Sherman

A well-reasoned list. It is interesting, however, that of your “Top 10,” the most recent is some 25 years old. Does this indicate a change in focus by playwrights, or that no recent plays measure up to the standards you set?

alfred
alfred

A GREAT LIST, BUT YOU NEGLECT EARLIER TREASURES, SUCH AS O'NEILL'S TOO OFTED UNDERRATED AH WILDERNESS, SIDNEY HOWARD'S THE SILVER CORD, I REMEMBER MAMA, AND ELMER RICE'S STREET SCENE, NOT TO MENTIO SUCH MUSICALS AS HIGH BUTTON SHOES.

John Branch
John Branch

I'm going to read through the list as soon as I have time--since it's not all on a single page--but my first reaction is that family dramas have largely defined American theater and that this has been, still is, a big handicap. Three of my favorite British dramas from recent years, chosen from memory at random, are Patrick Marber's Closer, Michael Frayn's Democracy, and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Why doesn't American drama try more often to do the kind of things those plays do?