The surprising, plaintive thing about the title of the new Civilians show, You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents’ Divorce, is that you never actually hear it. It is, of course, straightforwardly descriptive: Four of the company’s documentarian-performers (Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris and Robbie Collier Sublett) have interrogated their parents about their marriages, and the radically simple production consists entirely of the actors sitting in armchairs, reciting verbatim from those interviews. Sit Down is not the painful project it sounds like: Time and distance—often nearly 20 years’ worth—make the tone rueful rather than tortured, and the Civilians (abetted immensely by Anne Kauffman’s deft direction) keep things at a gentle, nearly philosophical remove.
The main appeal here is voyeuristic, of course, though we also experience a nearly sensual pleasure in the welter of specificity—Maher’s barking imitation of his father’s laugh, Sublett’s mother describing costumes from a long-ago revue. We squirm delightedly at the period detail when Morris’s mother (who sounds like a pistol) can exactly summon up the look in her groom’s eyes when he first clocked her wedding hat. But it’s poignant to hear how, among these many keen recollections, the memories of telling the kids have receded into the fog. That title implies the children will be center stage; the actual show denies them that over and over again. I found myself most touched by the series of residual shocks under the substrate of this elegant, wistfully funny show—the little tremors from lifetimes spent realizing that a parent’s trauma is forever out of reach.—Helen Shaw