In her provocative new work at The Minetta Lane Theatre, Down the Garden Paths, Meara has set up a seriocomic construct which allows us to see how a fictional show business family named Garden might have evolved if one moment in their lives had happened differently--a central idea that lies somewhere on the continuum between that of the classic film It's a Wonderful Life and the newly released The Family Man. While a fantasy, the play is still deeply rooted in the reality that every action has a reaction.
Meara, known primarily as an actress/comedian (half of the team of Stiller & Meara, and mother of Ben Stiller), is also an accomplished writer for the stage; her After Play was much acclaimed, and has received numerous productions throughout the country. This new, more ambitious piece starts off with a sly send-up of awards dinners as the late benefactor of a wealthy foundation--the comically pixilated scientist Herschel Strange (Jerry Stiller)--is seen on videotape. This tape sets a light tone that is hilariously heightened when John Shea, as Arthur Garden, accepts the award given in Strange's name. As his acceptance speech begins, a scrim rises behind him to reveal his family-filled living room, where everyone has gathered (ostensibly) to congratulate him for the award.
Dysfunction is the order of the day here. Max (Adam Grupper) is an alcoholic writer of TV soap operas who lives in the shadow of his kid brother Arthur's brilliance; his sense of inadequacy is further compounded by the knowledge that Arthur saved him from drowning when they were kids. The near tragedy of that day still haunts their parents, Sid (Eli Wallach) and Stella (Anne Jackson) Garden, two vaudevillians who managed to raise a family despite their own self-involvement. Yet the bickering among the family members, underscored by secret affairs and betrayals, is played largely for comedy. Between Meara's one-liners and the endearing performances of the ageless Wallach and Jackson, this early scene gets plenty of laughs.
But what would the Garden family be like if Arthur hadn't pulled his brother out of the lake in time? In three more variations, the Strange Award is handed out and we witness the family later that night, but it's never the same. Not only are the dynamics between characters different, some of them simply do not exist, because the characters either weren't born or have died. The changes are drastic but utterly convincing in relation to what we have come to know of these people. Meanwhile, the play becomes purposefully less funny. Meara sucks us in with comedy, but holds us with drama suffused with pain, loss, and poignancy.
The author, who knows a little bit about show business families, crafts dialogue that sounds completely real; it entertains us even as it deftly defines the deeply flawed, fundamentally human characters she has written. The actors who embody those characters give them added zest and appeal. Of course, Wallach and Jackson bring their own iconography to the play. Who wouldn't believe them as an old married couple that has survived the show business wars together? They might be the first reason anyone would go to see Down the Garden Paths, but John Shea is the reason you'll remember it. He's the center of the play, offering a virtuoso performance in which he convincingly presents three distinctly different versions of himself.
Director David Saint carefully modulates Down the Garden Paths so that the comedy and drama of the piece carefully bleed into each other. He has also cast the play well, with Grupper worthy of special praise. Leslie Lyles in one role, and Amy Stiller and Roberta Wallace in two roles apiece, acquit themselves well. While James Youmans' set design doesn't much reflect the various upheavals in Arthur's life (partly due to the limitations of stage versus screen), David Murin's costumes carefully mirror the changes we eventually see in the play's leading characters. Finally, Michael Lincoln's lighting designs are crucial to the fantastic conceit around which the play revolves, yet a strong sense of reality is wisely established at one point within each scene. In short, while Down the Garden Paths may not mark a turning point in your life, it will likely be one of the better plays you'll see this season.