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Marc Palmieri's drama suffers from structural problems, but remains a powerful examination of dysfunctional families.

Susan Bennett, Todd Lawson, Tristan Colton,
and Curzon Dobell in Levitttown
(© Dixie Sheridan)
During the exhilarating post-World War II period, Abraham Levitt and sons William and Alfred built four tract communities from scratch named Levittowns -- in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Puerto Rico -- that were eventually satirized for their uniformity. In his new play Levittown, Marc Palmieri questions old assumptions about what went on in these cookie-cutter households. While this drama suffers severely from structural problems, it ultimately remains somewhat powerful in examining how dysfunctional families are far from "just the same," no matter how similar their physical surroundings.

Palmieri focuses on three generations of the Maddigan clan, as seen in 1999: There's war-wounded, retired fireman Edmund (Dane Knell); his mantra-chanting daughter Kathleen (Deborah Tranelli); Kathleen's just-engaged daughter Colleen (Susan Bennett); her just-returned-from-his-most-recent-college-try son Kevin (Tristan Colton); and Kathleen's ex-husband, Richard Briggs (Curzon Dobell) -- whom Kevin reunites with the long-estranged Colleen -- on the occasion of her impending marriage to hotel manager Brian (Todd Lawson). Sadly, all that the seriously disturbed Richard can do is revert to form and attempt to thwart the impending nuptials.

Palmieri's intention is to illustrate how each of the family members is neurotic -- if not to say psychotic -- in his or her own way. Edmund is accused of being emotionally distant. Kathleen's marital problems have propelled her into excessive Eastern-philosophy devotion. Colleen is fragile after recovery from drug-abuse and bulimia. Kevin lacks stick-to-it-iveness and suffers from a need to heal everyone, and fellow family member Joe (Tyler Pierce) can't find commitment. Only Brian, a well-adjusted young man, is excused from the raging Levittown curse.

Unfortunately, the playwright hasn't found the way in which to make his various perspectives cohere, as he jolts from scene to scene to scene. Edmund's flashbacks -- in particular the one that ends the first of the two-act work -- suggest Palmieri is contending that the sins of the grandfathers are inevitably visited on the succeeding generations. But then the introduction of crazed Richard hint that he's the fulcrum; Colleen's tenuous hold on a healthy mind and body temporarily pushes her front and center; and Kevin's need to be conciliating angel (and, not incidentally, he's the last character accorded undivided attention) indicates the chockablock opus has actually been about his (noticeably underwritten) assailed self-esteem.

Palmieri is aided in his quest by an estimable acting ensemble -- not one of whom, as directed by George Demas, lets a nuance slip by -- and by set designer Michele Spadaro's one-set vision of two identical Levittown abodes in their late 1940s-early 1950s semi-splendor. But in ultimately trying to make the whole family dynamic his subject -- an aim solved much more effectively in plays such as Tracy Letts' August: Osage County -- Palmieri hasn't quite built as strong a house as he intended.


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