Sometimes novelists tell a story backward, from finish to start. In theater, “reverse chronology” is rare. Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, one of the few successes, begins after the end of an affair and backpedals seven years to the first stirrings. The Stephen Sondheim/George Furth musical Merrily We Roll Along follows the 20-year moral decline of a composer turned movie producer, backwards. The original received negative reviews. A 1985 revision by Des McAnuff and the La Jolla Playhouse fared better but had troubles as well.
Part of the problem: a novel can run in reverse because the reader can go back and fact-check, but theater audiences don’t have instant replay and, in Lindsey Ferrentino’s The Year to Come, may struggle to determine what’s important as scenes retreat further and further from today.
The play’s set in a family’s screened-in patio — swimming pool included — somewhere in Florida. It’s New Year’s Eve, 2018. The family is a Noah’s Ark of diversity: Estelle’s father Pop-pop was a Jewish immigrant who remembers Berlin in the 1930’s. She married Frank, a Cuban-American fireman, now retired. Frank calls their son Jim, “special,” because Jim is gay. Jim’s husband, Sinan, is a Muslim law partner. Now retired, Joe’s an African-American who wanted to be a comedian but quit to pay wife Pam’s health bills. Pam, who had ovarian cancer, is Frank’s Cuban sister. Jim and Sinan adopt Asian twin infants.
Betrayal follows three characters (four, counting the waiter) for seven years, and is easy to follow. Keeping tabs on eight characters for 18 years in reverse, along with tracking an abundance of themes, makes for a hard sit, especially in the long first act.
Pam begins the play, December 2018, on oxygen. She has lung cancer, she announces, while taking a drag off a cigarette. Changes can be sudden or almost imperceptible, she says: forget how “we got here… only look ahead.” The play prefers how they got here.
By 2018, the family’s battle lines have long since been drawn. If you believe him, Frank is America’s Number One First Responder Hero Extraordinaire. During 9/11, he charged through frantic crowds and saved countless lives. His wife Estelle is a mess. A life-wrecking experience shriveled her. When she says she may start the Atkins diet as a New Year’s resolution, one only half believes her. Of course, given the way he boasts, one may only half believe Frank as well.
The family has a rule — “no politics on a holiday” — that they break on entering the house, which becomes the site of a culture war. Along with the obvious dividers of political and sexual preference, the play picks up on a current divide: facts versus “a fact that is factually untrue.” Jim and Sinan argue for adherence to truth. Frank, Pam, and her husband Joe say that kind of thinking is hoity-toity BS. Joe says “the truth is too hard to understand.” Pam claims she’s not stupid, she’s “just not interested in being smart.” They say “you’re gonna believe what you’re gonna believe.” How this fact/anti-fact divide evolved is one of the play’s more interesting aspects. Especially when depressed Estelle says “sadness will be just a fact we carry.”
As the years recede, there’s a marriage, an infidelity, illness, and resolutions made and broken. Some people grow, some stagnate, and yet they keep coming back to the screen room, in spite of differences, to ring in the New Year.
The playwright works with a huge canvas and deserves kudos for the attempt. Also it’s rare to have a play telling us about ourselves right now. But The Year to Come tries to cover so much ground that some scenes and characters are sketchy. In the beginning, Pam says change is often imperceptible (“like a frog simmering on a boiler”). But since the play will probably go from 2018 back to 9/11, must it cover every year along the way? It’s never wise to show how long something will take on stage. When it’s, say, 2009, you have at least eight more scenes to wade through.
Overall, the play beams on and off. And the outcome’s fairly predictable. Individual scenes and performances, however, are memorable. Jonathan Nichols’ bigoted Frank is a narcissist. He tries to tear others down. He craves attention. A compulsive liar, he makes up reality. Whatever he says becomes true because he said it. When it comes to “alternative facts,” he may have only one rival.
For most of the play, Jane Kaczmarek just mopes as Frank’s wife Estelle. What’s this gifted actor doing in such a nothing role? Turn her loose! Year does, and she and Peter Van Wagner take over.
Van Wagner’s Pop-Pop, the nearly comatose grandfather, slumps in a wheelchair until 2010. Just when the show needs stealing, he comes to life as if resurrected. He delivers a searing monologue and opens act two (2008) with a version of “Viva Las Vegas” that threatens to splinter the house. In his monologue he talks about being a Jewish refugee, and how today reminds him of Germany in the 1930s. He escaped from Germany, he says. Then sums up the play: “But you can’t escape family.”
- The Year to Come, by Lindsey Ferrentino.
- Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive.
- Directed by Anne Kauffman, cast: Marcia DeBonis, Jonathan Nichols, Jane Kaczmarek, Adam Chanler-Brat, Pomme Koch, Ray Anthony Thomas, Peter Van Wagner, Jeanna Dioguardi; scenic design, Christopher Acebo, costumes, Dede Ayite, lighting, Lap Chi Chui, sound, Brandon Wolcott, videos, Anna Robinson, wig and makeup, J. Jared Janas.
- Playing through December 30; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.