Next Theatre Company

In the debased currency of contemporary discourse, the word “family” has come to mean anything you want it to. The religious right defines the family as a strictly nuclear, unswervingly heterosexual two-parent institution, conveniently ignoring the truth even about their own movement, which increasingly includes extended, sexually heterogeneous households. Meanwhile corporations tell their wage slaves that they’re all members of one big happy family–that is, until it’s time for layoffs. Then all the brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts find themselves transformed into mere employees, and former ones at that. Tom Szentgyorgyi’s dark comedy explores the many contradictory meanings of the word floating around our national psyche: family as workplace; family as living unit; family as income source; family as dysfunctional institution; family as a convenient excuse for fraud, theft, murder; family as everything but a loving, comfortable place for the care and nurturing of human beings.

A Family Man follows an amiable rake, Jake, as he and two people we assume are his wife and son are pursued across the country by a mob loan collector. Such picaresque stories have often followed a course similar to the one charted in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress: a man encounters a series of diversions, obstacles, and temptations, overcomes them, and in the end earns his place in heaven (Don Quixote) or the arms of his beloved (Tom Jones, It Happened One Night, Sullivan’s Travels).

In the last generation or two, however, such journeys have become darker, leading protagonists not to divine or earthly bliss but to private hells from which there is no escape. In Nabokov’s 1958 novel Lolita, for example, Humbert Humbert loses love, honor, and freedom on the road. The same thing happens to the hero of Howard Korder’s play Search and Destroy, with the added twist that he takes us down with him, showing us in all its sleazy glory an America so money-mad and scam-hungry it would sell its birthright for a shot, however long, at the big time.

Jake’s journey is similarly hellbound. Like Korder’s protagonist, Jake finds his options shrinking at every turn: his money quickly goes, his cousins won’t take him in, and nothing he does shakes the loan collector. Unlike Korder’s isolated figures, however, Jake is not alone. At every step of the way he drags with him the woman who loves him, Sammy, who’s pregnant with his child, and her son from a previous marriage. And it is in the name of this makeshift family–mother, son, and unborn child–that he commits one wrongful act after another. Yet the more we learn about Jake–and every few minutes Szentgyorgyi cleverly reveals yet another awful thing about his past–the more we see that Jake only cares about Jake. He has no more sense of what it’s like to be in a family than does the harsh, rule-bound restaurant chain that welcomes him and its other customers to “Pancake Annie’s family.”

By including Sammy and her son in Jake’s journey, Szentgyorgyi is able to craft a play that is at once a great allegory of America in the 90s–broke, narcissistic, desperate–and a story about living, breathing characters. Jake is no mere symbol. By the end of the play we’re hoping against hope that, for the sake of his family, this schmuck will get his life together. Likewise we feel Sammy’s pain as she realizes how unreliable Jake is.

Director Sarah Tucker deserves credit for revealing the human side of Szentgyorgyi’s comedy. Without sacrificing his jabs at contemporary America, Tucker manages to bring out the sweeter, quieter moments in the script, as when Jake for a moment really acts like a dad, or when the loan collector shows more concern for Sammy than Jake does.

It helps to have a great cast. Paul Ratliff makes a wonderful, horrible Jake, at once charismatic and sleazy, attractive and untrustworthy, incapable of doing anything without calculating what’s in it for him. Karla Harscheid’s open, likable, but naive Sammy makes a great foil for Ratcliff’s Jake: you can see in her every move and glance that she thinks she’s found at long last love, and watching her slowly realize the truth is heartbreaking.

Michael Nowak wins my highest regard, however, for the expert way he both maintains the menace of a loan collector and provides the play with a moral center. After all, he’s only asking Jake to do what is best and right: pay off his debts and stop talking about being a family man and start being one.