With a wife devoted to quinoa and Whole Foods, a husband who loves poking jabs at the Washington Post, and two kids who hate looking up from their cell phone screens, Bethesda pays plenty of homage to its titular Maryland locale. But Jennie Berman Eng’s dark comedy isn’t a big-picture commentary on a place and time; it is a more microscopic story, a close-up examination of a family fraying at the edges.
The heated domestic broil centers on Barry (James Whalen), a high-level American diplomat whose recent transgressions abroad have sent him and his family back to DC in disgrace. Children Hildy (Georgia Mae Lively) and Kevin (Noah Chiet) openly disapprove of this change and provide some of the play’s most poignant commentary on truth and love. But the story is really about Joy (Adrienne Nelson), the family matriarch who will do anything to ignore her husband’s misgivings and catapult him back to the top of the political ladder.
Eng, who wrote, produced and directed Bethesda, portrays this boiling family turmoil with mixed success. The staging is simple, mostly accomplished with a kitchen table, chairs, and a bowl of apples; these items could have been used more creatively to establish relationships and time, but the storytelling is still relatively clear. Structurally, the play bounces from the family’s new life in Bethesda to their previous home in Bolivia, where their maid, Maria Consuelo (Ariana Almajan), serves as the catalyst for Barry’s downfall. Although lighting changes (subtly accomplished by Megan Seibel) indicate movements in time and place, these rapid shifts sometimes make the chronology of the family breakdown difficult to follow.
The family’s life in Bethesda is shown in a series of brief vignettes, progressively revealing more insight into the family’s history. Although the dialogue is snappy and clever—Joy delivering some of the play’s most amusing quips—the brevity of these moments allows little room for the characters to breathe and evolve. By the time Joy throws the final wedge into the family’s devolution, it is still relatively unclear as to when and how each of the characters reached his and her breaking point.
by Jennie Berman Eng
atGallery – Goethe Institut
812 7th Street NW
Washington, DC 20001
Details and tickets
Luckily, some standout performances make this emotional unraveling more clear. Lively and Chiet bookend their parents’ sputtering marriage with quiet yet accomplished teenage surliness. During her limited moments on stage, Almajan evokes a sense of mystery and intrigue so potent that it seems a shame her character is given so little opportunity to grow. Whalen delivers his role as the family’s flailing patriarch with strength and nuance, forcing his family (and the audience) to question how deserving he is of forgiveness, if at all.
Nelson, as Joy, serves as the production’s true powerhouse, however, and not only because her character calls for such vivacity. Joy could easily be portrayed as a stereotypical nagging housewife, a manipulative Lady Macbeth to her less capable husband. For all of Joy’s upper-class ambition, however, Nelson imparts a sense of insecurity and fragility. The script somewhat inhibits Joy’s emotional trajectory, but Nelson’s stunning emotional journey makes the production truly captivating.
Bethesda manages to weave a simple, enticing story about a family struggling to keep afloat, although the play leaves many questions unanswered.