Every family has those stories that make up their deeply held lore, the origin myths that are the fundamental building blocks of your past. They’re the jokes and insults and narratives around which your identity is shaped, that help guide you through the world, that you return to again and again and again through the rest of your life without knowing why. My family, for example, has one about the time I mixed up clams and oysters and which one grew pearls.
Oh, right, that’s the other thing. To outsiders, they can sometimes seem utterly inane. It takes quite a lot of skill as a writer to make an audience not just understand that these little things matter, but to feel why they do.
The old family memories dredged up in Stephanie Jacob’s new play Again are a little more dramatic than just oysters: a child accidentally abandoned on a train platform, teenage alcohol poisoning, a summer that let the children of divorced parents begin to hope that their family might become whole again. But Jacob’s attempt to evoke the way family can make you feel like you’re living in the past and present all at once, both in the moment and overwhelmed with memories, comes out a muddled mess.
Borrowing a page from the Constellations playbook, the play’s conversations will occasionally reset and start again, always searching for the version where no one gets upset and leaves, where everything actually gets said. But that’s not all: sometimes the characters will also call out their one-word impressions of unseen characters directly to the audience, and sometimes they’ll segue into a flashback. The point of the resets in particular is unclear, and none of these stylistic tricks blend harmoniously together.
Strip these away, and you’re left with a paper-thin plot: an attempt by divorced parents to have a lunch with their grown children, interspersed with recollections and repetitive family in-jokes. While I don’t think plays should follow proscriptive formulas, I kept thinking about how the first lesson I was ever taught about writing plays is that you have to answer the Passover question: why is this night different from all other nights? That is, why are we watching these characters on this day? Why is this moment a turning point, why are these events happening now and only now? None of these questions are really answered, and that makes the whole unfolding feel somewhat arbitrary, the stakes too low.
The two-dimensional characters are animated by oddly stiff performances. The constant flipping around doesn’t deepen our understanding of the character, it distracts from it. Characters are what they do, after all—so it’s hard to know who these characters are when we don’t really know which version of what we’re seeing is ‘real’. Some of the resets seem plausibly like different refractions of one person’s many choices, but others cast the whole character in an entirely new light—a new light that doesn’t have time to be fully dispersed and reflected, because we’re off to jumping through new scenarios and new presents and pasts.
Centuries of plays provide proof that ordinary lives, simple memories, can be wildly impactful. The happiness of a single individual can, in the right hands, seem like the most important problem in the world—if only for an hour or two. But it takes much more delicacy and depth than is on display in Again. Rather like a desperately fancy meal cooked up in hopes of holding a fracturing family together, tricks only go so far when the relationships underpinning them are weak.
Again is on until 3 March 2018 at the Trafalgar Studios. Click here for more details.