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Of Good Stock

Three sisters unload some family baggage on a Cape Cod beachfront.

Jennifer Mudge (Jess), Heather Lind (Celia), and Alicia Silverstone (Amy) in Melissa Ross' Of Good Stock, directed by Lynne Meadow, at MTC's New York City Center — Stage I.
(© Joan Marcus)

There's just something about wicker furniture and an ocean view that beckons a weekend of family dysfunction. Melissa Ross' new play Of Good Stock is not the first in its genre, particularly at Manhattan Theatre Club, whose audiences have grown familiar with its finely furnished abodes filled with dusty skeletons (think recent MTC additions like Donald Margulies' The Country House or Amanda Peet's The Commons of Pensacola). But as members of the Stockton bloodline come streaming in, dumping their literal and figurative baggage all over the polished wood floors of their Cape Cod headquarters, Ross unpacks the enduring legacy of their endangered clan with an engrossing mix of humor and heart.

A combination of poor genetics and rotten luck threaten the Stocktons with extinction — though the fate of the Stockton name is all but sealed. Only three sisters remain to represent their brood: Jess (Jennifer Mudge), the oldest and de facto matriarch, Amy (Alicia Silverstone), the forgotten middle child, and Celia (Heather Lind), the free-spirited baby. Their mother, an only child, was taken long ago by lung cancer, and their father, also an only child (not to mention a famous novelist with questionable morals), is ten years gone following a deadly car crash. Aside from their beautiful beach house on Cape Cod, which is technically the sole property of Jess (to Amy's eternal resentment), the Stockton parents left each daughter her fair share of emotional scars. They don't often get together to hash these out, but Jess' 41st birthday — a landmark for a particularly poignant reason — provides the excuse for a weekend reunion at the luscious beach-front home, designed to Good Housekeeping perfection by Santo Loquasto.

A contentious family weekend is what we're promised and a contentious family weekend is what Ross delivers. And considering the aura of cliché she has to fend off after Jess' husband Fred (Kelly AuCoin) says to his anxious spouse in a foreboding declaration, "It's just three days! We can do anything for three days, kid," she does so with great success. The plot is not completely sanitized of the formulaic as a number of twists roll by to little surprise, but Ross' three sisters, played by three strong actresses, strike a fine balance between the comfortingly recognizable and enchantingly fresh.

Mudge, whose character finds herself in the midst of a health crisis, mines the fragility in Jess' perpetually stonefaced poise. Lind, meanwhile, takes Mudge's maternal cues, portraying Celia as a lost soul with a big heart and an aching for something to ground her (enter the new man in her life, Hunter, played by lovable oaf Nate Miller). Silverstone, whose most iconic film roles come in the form of ditsy blondes, finds a familiar voice in Amy (and a familiar wardrobe in her waspy beachfront attire provided by costume designer Tom Broecker). She enters the house with her hunky fiancé, Josh (played by Greg Keller as an overgrown adolescent), obsessing over the details of their upcoming destination wedding while periodically storming out of rooms in tears. Yet, as the weekend unfolds, her monotonous whine takes on the invigorating, and even sympathetic heft of a grown woman with a childlike need for her absent mother.

All three women have unique neuroses, but believably hail from the same "good stock," as their Pop Pop would ironically say. With little plot to speak of in Ross' slice-of-life play, the story turns on the relationships that fluctuate within it. As such, director Lynne Meadow makes a science of each, building a world that feels effortlessly realistic while also artistically cohesive. The romantic relationships that kindle and fizzle throughout the weekend for Jess, Amy, and Celia — the potential bearers of future Stockton children — hang over their heads like phantom branches of their distorted family tree. The focus, however, remains on the current generation of Stockton sisters, who attempt to cleanse themselves of the damage that's already been done before their successors can carry on their family legacy. Ross does not reinvent the wheel with her portrayal of sisterly camaraderie, but as the women share a profanity-laden catharsis over a bottle of scotch, you have to feel glad that this particular wheel was in stock.