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Arts and Entertainment Tuesday, Aug. 13, 2019 4 months ago

Dog Days Theatre’s 'Harbor' puts the 'fun' in dysfunctional family

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A dream team of actors take on this sitcom-style play that quickly changes tones when one character reveals a secret.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

According to John Lennon, “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.” Chad Beguelin’s “Harbor” puts that thesis on stage in this summer’s final Dog Days Theatre production.

The play starts out with a sitcom feel. It’s a classic situation. Ted (Creg Sclavi) is a successful architect; his partner Kevin (Marc Bitler) is a wannabe novelist. Thanks to the 2015 Supreme Court decision, they’re happily married and living the American dream in an upscale house in Sag Harbor, N.Y. But the couple gets a rude awakening when Kevin’s dysfunctional sister, Donna (Summer Dawn Wallace), shows up on their doorstep with her gifted teenage daughter, Lottie (Jen Diaz).

Donna’s a trash-talking single mom with a sob story to tell. She’s living out of a van and desperately seeking a safe harbor before her next singing gig. After some debate, Kevin and Ted agree to let her stay a few nights. The visit stretches into weeks and months. Then, with flawless timing, Donna drops a bombshell. She’s pregnant. And she wants the couple to adopt her baby.

Based on the sitcom template, the play’s now reached the “inciting incident” that’ll spin the story in another direction. You now know exactly what to expect. This is a feel-good comedy about two gay dads and a baby. Aw. You’re in for hugging, learning, personal growth and a happy ending!

That’s not what happens. I don’t mean in terms of story. Maybe Ted and Kevin adopt the baby, maybe they don’t. But that’s not the point. After Donna plays the baby card, the play shifts focus from plot to character. Adoption or not, life happens, and it’s not what anybody planned. 

Summer Dawn Wallace plays Donna in "Harbor." Photo by Cliff Roles

Greg Leaming’s direction combines stellar comic timing with subtle character touches. There’s a nice bit where Donna hugs her daughter. Lottie’s arms rise to return the embrace — then she thinks about it, and lets her arms drop. 

The actors are a dream team. Bitler’s Kevin is fluttering, nervous and dependent. Self-directed? No. Talented? That remains to be seen. For now, he’s a writer who doesn’t write, and content with a subsidized existence. “What will Ted think?” is his guiding star. Kevin’s an adult in name only. Bitler delivers a hilarious, Nathan Lane-esque performance as this man-child. Ted’s the only responsible adult in the play. Sclavi gets the thankless task of playing him. Aside from being a killjoy, this character gets less stage time, and he’s defined in broad strokes. Ted’s got his act together; he’s the breadwinner; and he doesn’t want to adopt.

Beguelin stacks the deck against Ted — until he becomes protective of Lottie. Hey, maybe he’s not so bad. Sketchy character; solid performance. Diaz’ Lottie is the de facto parent in her dysfunctional family unit. Her painfully self-aware character knows too much to fit in with other teens. Lottie devours books like Edith Wharton’s “House of Mirth” and Virginia Woolf’s “Mrs. Dalloway.” You won’t find those in the Young Adult section. 

All three of these actors are heavy hitters. But Wallace’s Donna steals the show. Her character’s a foul-mouthed force of nature on the loose from a trashy Fox sitcom in the 1980s. Like Archie Bunker and Peter Griffin, Donna speaks her mind. That mind is relentlessly self-centered and boiling with politically incorrect slurs.

Jen Diaz and Summer Dawn Wallace play daughter and mother in "Harbor." Photo by Steven Kemp

Wallace vanishes inside this warped individual in a brilliant comic performance. (The scene where Donna throws a tantrum at Lottie’s un-birthday party is worth the price of admission.) On top of that, her Southern accent is flawless. If the playbill hadn’t listed Wallace’s name, I wouldn’t have recognized her.

The Dog Days artistic team puts Beguelin’s craziness in context. David Covach’s costumes check the right boxes for class, race, sexual orientation and income level. Steven Kemp’s set evokes the ambiance of an upscale manse that might as well be a Marriott Hotel. Michael Pasquini’s lighting dims and brightens with the lucidity of the characters. Their creative work is all first-rate.

Bottom line?

Jen Diaz plays Lottie. the daughter who acts more like a mother. Photo by Cliff Roles

This play’s a lot of fun. My only negative criticism is a backhanded compliment. It’s too good. Beguelin’s dialogue has no hint of naturalistic sloppiness and redundancy. His scenes get to the point and move the story with a snappy rhythm. That’s great if you hate being bored, bad if you hunger for realism. His characters are funnier and sharper than they’d be in real life. Beguelin is a joke machine when it comes to one-liners. He keeps the laughs coming. It’s entertaining, sure. But his characters tend to sound like joke machines.

If you see past Beguelin’s style, the substance is there. “Harbor” hints that the children shall inherit the neuroses of their parents. Donna and Ted were raised by a mother living with alcoholism and possibly bipolar disorder. Her boozy mood swings warped their childish minds. And they grew up to be two damaged adults. Ted’s a feckless, co-dependent dreamer; Donna’s a manipulative, narcissistic grifter. Together, they quickly revert to old patterns. Ted and Donna seem hopelessly stuck; but the next generation has a chance. Lottie can still get off that karmic merry-go-round. But only if somebody steps up, takes responsibility and hits the kill switch on the cycle of neglect.

All kidding aside, that seems to be the plan.

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