The 30 greatest American family dramas
American playwrights know how to keep it in the family.
Fri Mar 23 2012
Photograph: Martha Swope
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. THE 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