The plays produced by 16th Street Theater usually stay with you for a while. I often find myself thinking about them for days, wondering what will happen next to the characters we get to know so intimately during these intense productions. Such is the case with Small Jokes About Monsters, the company’s current — and last — show in their “old” space on 16th Street in Berwyn before their spring move to a new, larger theater in a former VFW hall on Harlem Avenue, also in Berwyn.
This tightly-written work by Chicago actor and playwright Steven Strafford is hilarious and heartfelt even though it comes from the perhaps overly familiar genre of current comedies about dysfunctional families who love one another but cannot seem to engage in a cease-fire to stop sniping at one another. The show is strongly directed and the acting is first-rate.
The drama opens immediately following the funeral of a man whose three grown sons, in their 30s to early 40s, have gathered at a rented beach house. Before long, their mother joins them. She is an African-American woman, perhaps in her early 60s. She has been divorced for a number of years from their father, who left her, then remarried.
This is where one of the unique aspects of this production occurs. The mom (Shariba Rivers) is black, and so is the youngest son, Derek (Christopher Wayland Jones). The oldest brother, John (Eric Slater) is white, while the middle son, Ryan (Esteban Andres Cruz) is Latino. No dialogue ever clarifies the ethnicity of the unseen father or addresses the color range of the sons, but that really doesn’t matter. Each man is different ethnically.
Since every family is quirky and unique, the color-blind casting adds another level of insight and conflict. Within minutes we accept this diverse unit as a nuclear family. Under the direction of Kristina Valada-Viars, this ensemble has established great chemistry.
Rivers is especially strong as the tough but loving mom who never hesitates to speak her mind. She can be brutally insulting.
Ryan, the sarcastic middle son, is gay, with a history of drug addiction and alcoholism. He is the neediest of the three sons. It seems, early on, he was assigned the role of the family screw-up, though lately he has cleaned up his act and is doing much better. John, the eldest brother, is often accused of being “bougie” or overly middle-class. He’s fed up with brother Ryan. Derek, the youngest brother, is sweet and thoughtful. Both he and John are married with families.
The title, Small Jokes About Monsters, is tied to Ryan’s idea that the three brothers’ comic approach to life is related to three kinds of monsters from Japanese sci-fi movies: Godzillas, Mothras, and Gameras.
None of the sons seems to have been close to their father. But the conflict kicks in big-time when a letter is read from the dead man. He leaves money to his sons, but he does not dole it out equally, which causes heightened friction between the brothers. It also leads to a volatile secret coming to light.
The assistant director is Ben F. Locke. The stage manager is Wendye Clarendon. The cool-looking beach house set, incorporating a lot of clear plastic, which provides a somewhat icy sheen to the setting, is designed by Eleanor Kahn. The light design is by Cat Wilson.
The play runs 90 minutes with no intermission.
See “Small Jokes About Monsters,” Thursdays and Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8 p.m.; and some Sundays, 3 p.m., through Feb. 16. $22; $18, military families, low-income, Berwyn residents. Tickets/more: 16thstreettheater.org/season-twelve-2019. 6420 16th St., Berwyn.