That universal dilemma is addressed by Paula Vogel in The Long Christmas Ride Home, just now opening (and cleverly timed!) at the Vineyard Theatre, where the same playwright introduced New Yorkers to her Pulitzer Prize-winning play How I Learned to Drive. In structuring this intermissionless, 90-minute drama, Vogel has also drawn from other observations and influences. Perhaps the most obvious is Thornton Wilder, whose one-act plays The Long Christmas Dinner and The Happy Journey to Trenton and Camden Vogel has, to some extent, conflated and updated. And although there's a wisecrack in the text about Westerners not knowing the difference between the Japanese theater traditions of kabuki and Noh, Vogel actually turns to Bunraku puppetry for the play's most sophisticated convention. (There are also bows to Indonesian shadow puppets and modern dance.)
Vogel's plan in this "puppet play with actors" is intriguing, but though its particulars are surprising, the fact that she's gone out on this spindly limb isn't. This playwright recoils at the notion of writing plays that are alike in their composition; she wants each play to be different in texture from those that have preceded it. In that endeavor, with puppets on hand (Basil Twist created them), curtains gliding (Neil Patel is the designer of the Japanesque set), and a live percussionist (Luke Notary) striking away clangorously above the stage, Vogel has succeeded at not repeating herself. Okay, there's a car in this play and a committed consideration of the affect that adults have on children, but these elements are not presented as they were in How I Learned to Drive.
The notion is that the puppets represent the three children riding in the back seat of a car that is taking an eventful ride. The ride will affect their future because Stephen (Will McCormack), Rebecca (Catherine Kellner), and Claire (Enid Graham) witness a defining event in their parents' married life. Having skidded on an icy road to the edge of a precipice -- symbolic, of course -- their father (Mark Blum) slaps their mother (Randy Graff) when she sarcastically blurts out, "What a lovely Christmas you've given me."
In another of Vogel's shrewd Bunraku appropriations, she has the actors playing the children help to manipulate the puppets crafted to resemble them. Eventually, they step away to deliver monologues that show what happens when these traumatized kiddies reach their troubled maturity, and it's not pleasant. Stephen loses the love of a man named Joe and, on a sexual binge, contracts AIDS and dies. (His backroom misadventure, by the way, is shown as a shadow play. Of it, Vogel notes in an amusing stage direction, "[Stephen and anonymous partner] simulate a sexual act that means this play will never be performed in Texas.") No rays of happiness materialize for Claire or Rebecca either. The former is suffering from lesbian malaise, the latter from heterosexual grief: she's alone and pregnant even though, during that fateful Christmas episode, she vowed she'd never have children.
Yes, it was some ride. And there's the rub -- or, more precisely, the rubs. Vogel implicitly explains her lifting of Japanese theater conventions by making Stephen an admirer of Japanese culture. The Long Christmas Ride Home is seen through his eyes. He enters first and ritualistically at that, nodding to the actors playing his family to enter. Then the narration begins. The retreat from playing out the action to talking about it constitutes the first of the rubs. Perhaps Vogel is remaining true to her influences and perhaps it's a failing of Western sensibilities to find this approach unsatisfying, but a play feels dramatically impaired when so little is shown and so much is told.
In making Stephen the central figure, Vogel may have meant to indicate that the Christmas ride is only experienced as pivotal from his perspective, but it doesn't play that way. The take seems to be tacitly shared by his siblings, all of whom are irrevocably altered by the incident. (It's an incident shown repeatedly in slow motion so's to emphasize its significance.) But does this single-trauma hypothesis stand up to psychological analysis?
Though Vogel's theses ultimately don't pan out, they are suavely posited here. Patel's arrangement of walls and beams, David Van Tieghem's stirring music and sound design, Jess Goldstein's costumes (which don't rely on Japanese fashions but, rather, on '70s and '00s street wear), and Mark McCullough's subtle lighting suit the production ideally. The cast, directed with customary understanding by Mark Brokaw, is uniformly adept. As it happens, some of them wear hooded black uniforms as they help to manipulate the puppets and perform other stagehand duties: Their names are Matthew Acheson, Oliver Dalzell, Erin K. Orr, Marc Petrosino, Sarah Provost, and Lake Simons.
Will McCormack has the most to do and say, and from first nod to last, he conveys the right amount of inner turmoil and Shinto-like stoicism. The only thing he doesn't do is the interpretive dance that Vogel calls for. That's expertly performed by Sean Palmer, who also plays an excessively convivial Uni-Uni minister; in both roles, he couldn't be farther from the romantic lead he played in this past summer's production of The Boy Friend at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
Enid Graham and Catherine Kellner as (respectively) Claire and Rebecca capture the grim, damaged personalities that Vogel has penned. (McCormack, Graham, and Kellner do bang-up jobs at the puppet handling.) As the parents, Marc Blum and Randy Graff -- neither of whom has ever let a director down -- are up to their professional standards in parts that are deliberately contrived to be thankless. Thanks to them, all the same.
This is the season of the puppet in NYC: We've already had or are soon to get Avenue Q, Recent Tragic Events, Little Shop of Horrors, Sinatra: His Voice, His World, His Way, and Like I Say. And don't forget that, not so long ago, we had The Puppetry of the Penis. Into this grab bag, Paula Vogel has now tossed -- with distinguishing flair but without sufficient feeling -- what might be called The Puppetry of the Parents.