Zoe Kazan has established herself as one of the theater’s most exciting young actresses, and now she has debuted her first Off-Broadway play, We Live Here, at Manhattan Theatre Club -City Center. The work proves to be an acutely observed family drama, and it receives a fine production, directed by Sam Gold and acted by a wonderful cast.
The play’s first act opens in the middle of the chaos of last-minute preparations for the wedding of Allie Bateman (Jessica Collins) to her somewhat older fiance, Sandy (Jeremy Shamos), but we soon realize there’s a deeper friction in the household than just standard pre-nuptial tension.
It begins when Dinah (Betty Gilpin), Allie’s younger sister, arrives home from New York and suddenly asks if she can bring a date to the wedding. Her romantic interest turns out to be Daniel (Oscar Isaac), a college professor who happens to have a history with Dinah’s family — including both Allie and her parents (Amy Irving and Mark Blum) — that they would all like to forget.
Indeed, whenever Allie’s twin sister, Andi, is mentioned, someone changes the subject. Her ghostlike presence only heightens the play’s tension, and Kazan shows admirable restraint with her dialogue as the Batemans discuss everything except what’s at the heart of their disconnection.
The entire cast brings out the subtlest moments in Kazan’s script, and the energy between Collins and Isaac is particularly palpable. There’s a lot of humor as well, including an image of Allie struggling to carry a greasy flat tire into the house while Sandy waxes on about the lilacs he found on the side of the road.
But what shines through the most is how real the Batemans feel. There are many moments when the structures of scenes float away, and while these moments could easily come off as aimless, Gold orchestrates these scenes so even the banal seems urgent. Whether it’s a discussion between Dinah and Daniel on the proper way to eat a tomato or Sandy and Allie filling out wedding invitations, we want to see more of who these people are.
Many of the play’s intentionally larger moments play well too, especially when Mr. Bateman, a Greek scholar, concludes that “What makes the tragic hero tragic is that his error is the kind anyone could make.” That thought foreshadows a series of second act revelations that finally bring the family’s secret to the foreground. And ultimately Kazan’s play has no tragic hero, just ordinary people making errors in judgment.