Big Sky

The world-premiere comedy warns of the detriment of modern materialism to human relationships.

Jon Tenney and Jennifer Westfeldt in Big Sky, directed by John Rando, at the Geffen Playhouse.
Jon Tenney and Jennifer Westfeldt in Big Sky, directed by John Rando, at the Geffen Playhouse.
(© Darrett Sanders)

Broadway director John Rando brings the witty comedy Big Sky to the Geffen with a talented cast and a script that plays on conventions of the 1980s, but reflects how times have not changed when it comes to American's obsession with wealth above all.

Jack (Jon Tenney) brings his family to a five-star resort in Aspen to impress the owner of a successful financial company into hiring him. Jack has been unemployed for five years and the toll it has taken on his family has ripped them apart. His wife, Jen (Jennifer Westfeldt), has begun an affair with a married man, and his 17-year-old daughter, Tessa (Emily Robinson), has gone full rebel. Also inhabiting their lives is Jen's gay best friend of 20 years, Jonathan (Arnie Burton), who uses marijuana to stay calm and is financially reliant on his best friend and her husband. As the snow falls harder, the family ties unfetter and suddenly the cabin is full of strangers who can't remember why they once loved each other. Each family member considers the others to be obstacles from their own happiness.

The plot feels like something pulled from an '80s Lanford Wilson play or a Tom Wolfe novel, complete with financial masters of the universe, tales of gluttony ruining the marriage fabric, and even the cliché of the gay best friend with the dead lover. Somehow playwright Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros takes this house of cards and builds a biting comedy on how, 35 years later, the American dream is still soused in materialism.

Gersten-Vassilaros keenly introduces ghosts to the rental home, characters who are spoken about by the four protagonists, but are never seen. All the protagonists are either guided or haunted by these looming people. For Jen, it's her secret hospice lover who has reinvigorated her dying life. For Jack, it's the Pedersons, the wealthy potential employer, his vacuous wife, and drunk daughter who all hold his future in their hands. Jonathan's late lover, Tom, hangs like a dark cloud over him. Lastly, it is Tessa's Native-American heartthrob Catoni, whose name means "big sky," whose prophetic warnings reflect both the family's malaise and how they can find a cure. The audience doesn't really learn much about these unseen characters to make them fully realized people, but the way they inform the behaviors of our protagonists makes the script rewarding.

Gersten-Vassilaros has a knack for dialogue. Her characters are relatable even when aggravating. Tessa begins almost every sentence with "Catoni says," just like every crushing teenager would precede the words of her "wise" sage of a boyfriend, while the adults put into cohesive words the fears that most have about being lost, especially when bound by adult responsibilities.

The cast is stellar. Westfeldt, with her high-pitched voice and defiant stare, manages to convey both vulnerability and resolve. Tenney viably portrays a man on the verge of another nervous breakdown. His mood swings and acts of aggression demonstrate the stress that is breaking his character's back. Burton portrays the man-child, everyone's Jiminy Cricket, who has become both the confessor and the codependent. Though his role appears to be more of a catalyst than a fully formed character, Burton infuses Jonathan with a familial charm. Robinson is the perfect petulant child, combative and dismissive to the parents, but still filled with wonder toward her future.

Rando keeps the tension tight with visual and auditory cues like overlapping dialogue, and a creaking roof on the verge of collapse, to represent the family structure's poor health. Derek McLane's cabin living room set is both opulent and emotionless, beautifully decorated, but lacking warmth. Jaymi Lee Smith lights the set backdrop to make the snow seem realistic and dooming.

The Yuppies of today have learned nothing from those who crashed and burned in the 1980s. The family unit is fragile and takes interdependence to thrive. In Big Sky the natural order will take away all of Jen and Jack's distractions, so they can start again and create something solid.

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