Twilight of the Golds at Village Players Theatre is a layered story, a wrenching family drama that touches many hot-button issues, from bigotry to abortion, from homophobia to eugenics. I know, I know. That sounds like the ho-hum weekly line-up of topics for some daytime talk show. A summary of the plot doesn't come off much better?#34;it's like a TV Guide synopsis of some crisis-of-the-week melodrama. But the ensemble provides solid performances, playwright Jonathan Tolins' writing is strong, and there's plenty of funny material to keep the storyline from being a bummer.
The play initially unfolds like a Neil Simon sitcom about quirky, intrusive in-laws. The Golds of the title seem to be a picture-perfect Jewish family?#34;loving parents, a handsome son, a daughter married to a doctor. Yet there's an emotional tsunami on the horizon.
Here's the set-up: If you knew in advance through prenatal testing that your unborn son would be healthy and intelligent yet would stand a strong chance of being homosexual, would you choose to have the child nevertheless? The plot focuses upon just such a conflict between parental love and the cold, hard facts of modern science.
Before they even know their baby's name, a liberal Manhattan couple learns that an amniotic fluid test reveals the fetus seems genetically predisposed to be gay. This revelation turns the potential blessed event into a trial of values and ideals challenging both the extended Gold family and the marriage of the expectant parents.
Director Mary Heitert shows a firm grip as well as a flair for intimacy. Each character gets a big solo moment addressing the audience, sometimes even in the aisle, during scene transitions.
Mother-to-be Suzanne (Erin Reitz) dropped out of medical school for a job at Bloomingdale's with all the materialism that such an act implies. Reitz is quite credible, however, as a complex, insecure woman who's always been spoiled and smothered by her parents. She grapples with many conflicted feelings about herself, her choices and her family.
Proud papa Rob (Mark Mendelsohn) is an easygoing genetic research physician, the son of Orthodox Jews. He's drab but devoted, yet he doesn't fail to grow annoyed with his wife's family's nonstop meddling, especially as the Golds intrude on the couple's decision about their unborn child. Mendelsohn does well with this emotional balancing act.
David (Michael Williams), Suzanne's well-adjusted gay brother, works backstage at the Met and is obsessed with opera, especially Wagner. The ironic title of the play, in fact, is a pun on "The Twilight of the Gods," the final piece in Wagner's heroic Ring cycle of operas.
Lisa Pearson is wonderful as Suzanne's ditzy, overprotective mother, Phyllis Gold, who believes (like Anne Frank) that "people are good at heart." She's one of those characters we so enjoy in shows yet wouldn't want within an inch of our lives. Phyllis has a lot of hilarious quips. "Maybe I dressed you funny," she says to David, thinking out loud about the reasons for his homosexuality. "If only I hadn't taken your temperature that way."
Walter (Bill Brennan), Suzanne's dad, seems a jolly soul in that bland/jovial sitcom dad manner yet he startles us with sudden bursts of anger. Neither parent has fully come to terms with son David's sexuality. Deep down it disturbs them.
Though the Golds accept their son, his sexuality is clearly a source of discomfort to them. Mention is made of David's long-term, live-in lover, but he doesn't seem to be included often in Gold family get-togethers. Williams is quite charming and endearing as David. You feel like you're actually eavesdropping on their family conversations as he tosses off lines like, "Mother, behave, or we'll put you in a home."
His role is far from the mincing, stereotypical homosexual from back in the day, yet his predilection for filtering all reality through grand opera and Broadway musicals is a bit clichéd. Why doesn't anyone ever write a play about a gay plumber?
An air of sarcasm and sophistication permeates the dialogue. When Suzanne's father is told his unborn grandson will probably be gay he asks, "Are they sure?"
"They're doctors," his wife retorts. "They're never sure. They just tell you enough to destroy you."
Though all the characters seem credible, the two straight men (Suzanne's father and husband) are not as well developed as the other roles. The fault lies in the writing.
But the play opens up some challenging questions. David, for instance, finds himself arguing from a "right-to-life" stance often advocated by many who might oppose the legitimacy of his lifestyle. Yet Twilight of the Golds never becomes preachy or predictable because there are no clear-cut heroes and villains.
The genetic testing that identifies the potentially gay child triggers a family debate that pits the parents against their son, raising the painful question of whether they would have aborted him if they'd known he'd be homosexual.
The play is heavy on Wagner, which I find fascinating in a show featuring all Jewish characters. For many Lyric Opera seasons I sat next to a sweet little Jewish widow who made a point of being conspicuously and indignantly absent during any opera by Wagner because of the composer's reputed anti-Semitism. Wagner marches, so beloved by the Nazis, were also played by the "death band" while the latest arrivals were "selected" at Auschwitz.
The set design by Susie McIllwain is unique. The lower level is Rob and Suzanne's beige New York, high-tech apartment. The upper level is an ethereal, cloud-like perch where David often speaks, god-like, from a veritable Teutonic Mt. Olympus.
Christine Ferriter designed the lighting and Julie Ballard did the sound, which includes lots of clips from the Ring cycle. Property mistress Diane Kelly even has the correct yellow and red signature bags from Tower Records for David's frequent purchases of show tunes.
The jarring, thought-provoking ending is rich in irony.