Over the last several years, The Civilians have gained a well-deserved reputation as a company that produces thought-provoking, socially-conscious documentary theater pieces. In their latest show, You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents’ Divorce, now at The Flea Theater, the work is more personal than it is political. And even though it is not as insightful as it could be, it addresses its subject matter in an engaging and humorous fashion.
The hour-long piece is created and co-written by the four performers — Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris, and Robbie Collier Sublett — along with dramaturg Janice Paran and director Anne Kauffman. The actors play the roles of their parents, with the text reportedly taken verbatim from interview transcripts.
Each of the “parents” discuss their relationships, from how they met their partner, to why they married, and why they divorced, along with related issues like what objects they fought over, and how their kids fit into the picture. Some of them even address sexual matters in a surprisingly frank manner.
Sublett, who plays his mother Janet, has a low-key demeanor that is quietly compelling. Similarly, Miller has a grounded quality that makes her performance effective. Morris tends towards overly theatrical mannerisms that seem aimed at poking fun at her mother, rather than simply representing her. Maher is the only one to portray both of his parents, and is not always adept at switching back and forth between them in a way that is clearly differentiated.
Kauffman’s staging is unnecessarily busy, with the actors performing tasks such as getting coffee, answering the door, preparing to water plants, and other activities that can be rather distracting. It’s as if she and the actors didn’t trust that the material was interesting enough in and of itself.
And while it’s true that some of the details in the stories are rather mundane and even cliché, there is still a cumulative power in the way the tales are intertwined with one another.