Showcasing the Dark Side

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

There's a kind of scene that's popular in acting classes. It's usually a bit boozy and damaged. For guys, it's the tough guy criminal. For the ladies, it's a bit naughty maybe even slutty. You can't walk into an acting class without seeing one. It's people showcasing the dark side of themselves. A sort of wish fulfillment - like a weekend in Vegas.

Playwright Gary Lennon's new play A Family Thing at the Echo Theater Company falls squarely in this category.

The play circles around the Burns brothers. The trio grew up in an almost comically broken home. As one of the brother's says, Mom was "a bipolar stripper and my father was a murderer who had a degree in alcoholism and child abuse." Decades later the boys still have demons that they've yet to exorcise. They've all gone their separate ways . . . until today.

You see, today is the day that the middle brother Jim gets out of prison and he swore he was going to kill his brothers. So everybody's a little on edge. Sean, the youngest considers jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. The oldest, Frank, tries to drown his anxiety in a bag of coke, a bottle of booze, and a hooker. In case you don't get the milieu, the opening sound cues are Tom Waits.

Playwright Gary Lennon has a history writing for TV and you can feel it in the plodding, or plotting, efficiency of the scenes. Written as a series of alternating two person dialogues you can almost see the index cards arranged on the wall: introduce all the main characters; provide an improbable and slightly comic love interest for each of them; hint at the story line's interconnection; take advantage of every possible plot turn.

The dialogue, for what it is, is punchy and clever at the top. Mr. Lennon's writing falls somewhere on the border of archetype and stereotype but he's got the commercial chops to get a laugh and keep an audience engaged. There's some inside Hollywood bitterness that plays particularly well: Sean's a gay screenwriter who finds himself writing a family film for Disney; Tess, who's cut from the hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold cloth, says "I used to be a television writer. [So this] comes naturally to me."

Like that weekend in Vegas, A Family Thing is fun and filled with testosterone... for a while. About two thirds of the way through the 90 minutes, with a character's life in the balance, the play can't quite figure out what it wants to be: a dark revenge plot or an oddly sentimental family story. So, it settles for both. [Again the musical arc tells it all: we begin with Tom Waits, make a quick stop at Lou Reed, and end uncomfortably with a little U2.]

But back to the acting class and Vegas, going to the dark side is fun. Hearing people say things you could never get away with is a thrill. Unfortunately, it's all surface. If you're looking for an exploration of what makes people tick: you'll be disappointed. If you want an easy thrill - go for it.

A Family Thing plays at the Echo Theater Company on Washington Boulevard through March 17.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Sean Wing and Saverio Guerra in F Family Thing. Photo by Danielle Larsen