Who better than a feckless linguist with commitment issues to be a live-in counselor for a nice couple from Missouri having marriage problems?
That’s the situation in Michael Weller’s (Moonchildren) affable romantic comedy, The Full Catastrophe, a world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival snappily directed by festival director Ed Herendeen.
Film buffs may recognize the title as a line from “Zorba the Greek,” when someone asks Zorba if he’s married and he replies “Wife, children, house—the full catastrophe!” That somewhat pessimistic line is the best part of the movie for Jeremy Cook (Tom Coiner, perfectly puppyish as the hapless academic), the linguist protagonist in the play. In the mind of his girlfriend, Paula (a whip smart and beguiling Helen Anker), his favorite line speaks volumes on how he feels about matrimony and responsibility.
Communication and getting what other people are truly saying forms the core of Catastrophe, as well as making a statement that some things—like love, for instance—cannot be explained by science or logically parsed like a sentence.
Suddenly without a job or said girlfriend, Jeremy is adrift, until a job offer arrives from a mysterious billionaire businessman, Roy Pillow (Lee Sellars, playing a rich crackpot with showman’s glee). Roy wants to recruit Jeremy as a field researcher—a.k.a. marriage counselor–and practitioner of “The Pillow Method,” a self-help course Pillow devised that puts forth the notion breakdowns in communication between spouses can be solved by perfect grammar and precise word choice.
What the heck, Jeremy gives it a whirl and his first case is Beth (Helen Anker) and Dan (Cary Donaldson, bringing complexities to the nice-guy role) Wilson, from all appearances a pretty happy—if somewhat tense—couple. Jeremy moves in and tries to keep neutral and observe while following The Pillow Method to the letter.
This isn’t easy to do with the couple’s curious, voyeur 11-year-old son Robbie (the excellent, underplaying Sam Shunney)—one of the play’s warmly eccentric details has Robbie being able to analyze water flow when either of his parents shower—hanging around. And then there’s the fact that Jeremy finds himself increasingly attracted to Beth.
As the Wilson’s examine their marriage under Jeremy’s sweetly fumbling ineptitude, Jeremy is forced to face his ambivalence about intimacy and wonder why he avoids commitment at every turn—especially in his relationship with the one who got away, Paula.
CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN THEATER FESTIVAL
July 19 – August 2
The Full Catastrophe
Approx. 100 minutes
Details and Tickets
While Jeremy struggles mightily to help Beth and Dan, he is further besieged by hilariously declamatory messages from Roy Pillow, who thunders such pronouncements as “There’s a horror at the heart of every marriage and it’s the same horror—THE HORROR!”
Jeremy tries to discover just what that horror is—is it secrets or the fear that your mate won’t love you enough to be with you when things are bad?—and in the process realizes that keeping a cool distance is great for academia and semantics, but not for closeness.
Playwright Weller clearly knows his subject matter and displays uncloying empathy for the warps and woofs of marriage. This feeling of warmth and understanding—although the dialogue veers into Dr. Phil “How does that make you feel?” territory—is carried through in Herendeen’s astute direction.
Catastrophe’s laughs are of recognition, not only seeing reflections of yourself in Beth and Dan’s marriage but also in Jeremy’s reluctance and Paula’s honest passion. You also may relate to the peripheral characters, such as Beth’s ne’er-do-well brother Bruce and a lonely barfly floozie—all played to the hilt by T. Ryder Smith.
In Weller’s hands, the familiar is fresh and domesticity the wild frontier.
The Full Catastrophe by Michael Weller, Based on the novel by David Carkeet . Directed by Ed Herendeen . Featuring Tom Coiner, Lee Sellars, Helen Anker, Cary Donaldson, Sam Shunney, and T. Ryder Smith . Set Designer Peter Ksander . Costume Designer Therese Bruck . Lighting Designer D.M. Wood . Sound Designer Elisheba Ittoop . Technical Director Josh Frachiseur . Production Stage Manager Deb Acquavella . Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.
Running in repertory through August 2