Laura Bonarrigo, Joseph Adams and Lauren Currie Lewis
in Dance of the Seven-Headed Mouse
(© Carol Rosegg)
Laura Bonarrigo, Joseph Adams and Lauren Currie Lewis
in Dance of the Seven-Headed Mouse
(© Carol Rosegg)
Carol Gaunt's Dance of the Seven-Headed Mouse, now at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre, uses a by-the-numbers approach to demonstrate what happens to a superficially content upper-class Manhattan family when the younger of two daughters is killed in an automobile accident.

Indeed, the 80-minute drama, directed conscientiously by Christopher McElroen, sticks to a formula all-too familiar to these type of entries: They begin with a look at the participants in the relatively sunny moments before bad news knocks them into a family-secret-baring spin. When the bombshell bulletin arrives, the action immediately shifts to a series of disturbing complications and, eventually, to a denouement where the effected parties come to a (sometimes tentative) hopeful resolution.

Here, expert fundraiser Elly (the adequate Laura Bonarrigo) and workaholic architect Kevin (Joseph Adams) have returned to their Fifth Avenue flat after a dinner where she was honored. Their daughter Avril (the solid Lauren Currie Lewis) enters for a late-night snack and gets to comment that "it's hard never having to be embarrassed by your parents' appearances" -- only minutes before the three learn of younger child Molly's accident.

Fast cut to the household five months later when Elly is moping around the house in a bathrobe and suffering visions of the 8-year-old Molly (Maya Simkowitz) when she'd been tapped to join a Nutcracker Suite children's corps. Kevin is out of the house on a business trip, leaving boarding-school drop-out Avril to care for her mom and also to entertain visiting roommate Juliana (the refreshingly natural Molly Ephraim). Elly, who has turned viciously caustic, not only mocks Juliana for her lower-class upbringing but indulges herself in a suicide attempt. Things look bad and become somehow incredulously worse when damning information about deceased Molly emerges as well as the returned Kevin's negative attitude towards children cramping his career.

It's an understatement to say that Gaunt avoids subtleties in constructing her manual on the demands made of parents and children when there's a death in the family. But it's also unfair not to acknowledge she does hit one piercing home-truth. In a particularly honest scene, Avril presses her grieving mother to admit that Molly was her preferred offspring. Elly confesses, saying, "Yes, yes, yes, I loved Molly more. I hate myself for saying that. Is there some law that a mother's love has to be balanced like the scales of justice?"

Like many of these well-intentioned enterprises, Dance is produced by a public-service association: Hungry Hill Ltd., which, according to the program, "is dedicated to revealing the devastating effect of alcohol/substance abuse on its real victims, the family members left frantically trying to hold things together." The catch is that organizations like these want their points established bluntly -- and the aim of good playwriting is exactly the opposite.