Larry Bryggman and Ana Gasteyerin Roulette(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Larry Bryggman and Ana Gasteyer
in Roulette
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Paul Weitz's Roulette was tried out at Ensemble Studio Theatre and New York Stage and Film up in Poughkeepsie prior to EST's Curt Dempster and Susann Brinkley having made the decision to present the play Off-Broadway. This represents the first time ever that the West 52nd Street company has shifted a production off-site. But why, when EST has been associated with so many commendable works during its 31 years, is this the first play chosen for transfer?

It isn't worthy in the least. A totally unbelievable dysfunctional-family comedy (??), it huffs and puffs for two mercifully short acts. As it labors along, it makes a strong case for declaring a decade-long or maybe even century-long moratorium on plays about dysfunctional families. (Perhaps the very word "dysfunctional" should be outlawed.)

At the beginning of the first act, businessman Jon (Larry Bryggman) arrives at the breakfast table in his suburban home (Takeshi Kata's serviceable set) and -- interrupting his newspaper reading -- extracts a revolver from his briefcase. He inserts a bullet into the cylinder, spins it, places the gun to his right temple, and pulls the trigger. There's a dull click, nothing more. So he resumes glancing at the headlines and then heads briskly out the front door, briefcase in hand.

As for what follows, suffice it to say that playwright Weitz doesn't ignore Chekhov's rule about firearms introduced in the first act having to go off before the final curtain. (The inevitable happens at an entirely predictable moment.) Before and after that reverberating incident, Jon, his sweet-natured wife Enid (Leslie Lyles), his foul-mouthed punk daughter Jenny (Anna Paquin), and his nervous-wreck son Jock (Shawn Hatosy) have difficult moments as they attempt to connect with one another. Occasionally moved to hugging, they're hard put to negotiate the maneuver. This may have been Weitz's notion, or perhaps the awkward-embrace business was thought up -- not without a certain amount of insight -- by director Trip Cullman and cast.

Regularly dropping in on the stressed-out foursome are married neighbors Virginia (Ana Gasteyer) and Steve (Mark Setlock). Virginia is timid while Steve is a hail-fellow-well-met; in this, they're not unlike the interloping couple in Edward Albee's Delicate Balance. Steve, who eventually hits up Jon for a loan to solve a tax problem and also fears being locked in bathrooms, is having an affair with Enid. And guess what? Neither Virginia (who only wants to be nice to folks and to be treated nicely in return) nor Jon (who seems flummoxed by everything but his advertising-career duties) is in the dark about the affair. Jon's awareness of the frantic liaison seems to be behind his breakfast-time games of Russian roulette. What happens when the cylinder spins into unfortunate alignment with the barrel sets off reconciliation attempts among the characters; it's a protracted second-act sequence wherein a non compos mentis Jon is humored by the guilt-ridden others.

Shawn Hatosy, Mark Setlock, Anna Paquin, Ana Gasteyer, andLarry Bryggman in Roulette(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Shawn Hatosy, Mark Setlock, Anna Paquin, Ana Gasteyer, and
Larry Bryggman in Roulette
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
Maybe Weitz means to say that you never know what's going to pull an estranged family together. If so, he's landed on an inept and derivative way of getting his point across. It seems old news in 2004 to note that, nowadays, these matters are better handled on television. A single episode of Six Feet Under, which concerns a family every bit as eccentric as Jon's brood, is far more effective in establishing the same atmosphere and attitude. Indeed, a comparison of the Roulette types with the Six Feet Under crowd yields some striking, though undoubtedly unintended, similarities.

Since Weitz's play is the beginning and end of the problem here, no shame need be attached to director Cullman, who's been accumulating an attractive credit sheet over the last few years on his own and as associate to Mike Nichols and Joe Mantello. (His cool version of Noël Coward's overwrought The Vortex was especially fine.) Neither should the actors hang their heads contritely; after all, they must make a living. Condolences especially to Larry Bryggman, who comes to this unrewarding task immediately following the under-par Frame 312. Anna Paquin may want to think about taking on another platform-boots-and-porous-stockings role after this gig and last year's execrable Glory of Living; she could find herself doing it by the numbers in type-cast assignments. The other players -- Leslie Lyles, Ana Gasteyer, Mark Setlock, and the hyperkinetic Shawn Hatosy -- do what they can without ever signaling dismay over their predicament. There's good work also by costume designer Alejo Vietti, lighting designer Greg MacPherson, and the Aural Fixation sound design people.

Paul Weitz has had a couple other pieces presented at EST and, with his brother Chris, is responsible for some skillful movie scripts. (He's named after his grandfather, the revered Hollywood agent Paul Kohner; his mother is actress Susan Kohner.) Although Weitz's most recent click was the terrific flick About a Boy (which he also co-directed), he's been quoted as saying that "Not everything makes a good film; there's just literally certain stories that occur to me that are more appropriate for theater." He was very wrong to think that this was one of them.