Divorce rates in our country are at an all-time high, and there seems to be a continued mockery of marriage and divorce by “celebrities” in our culture. I can honestly say I wasn’t sure how excited I was to sit down and watch a play about relationships ending. Well, I was wrong. It was actually quite a bit more refreshing to see a brutally honest, truthful, and funny account of four real relationships not standing the tests of time than watching anything you’d find replaying twelve times a day on Bravo! In the capable hands of The Civilians (a theatre company that over the past few years has made a name for themselves by producing interesting, uncommon and rare documentary-style theatre) You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents’ Divorce is the personal account of four failed marriages taken directly from interview transcripts and performed with dynamic sincerity.
The premise of the show is quite simple; Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris, and Robbie Collier Sublett co-wrote the piece and are also the four performers on stage portraying their parents, mostly their mothers, based on taped interviews they had with them about their respective divorces. The actors, with the help of Anne Kauffman, the director, and dramaturg Janice Paran help shape the separate stories that ultimately end in divorce in to a cohesive, insightful and oftentimes witty hour of theatre (yes I used the words divorce and witty in the same sentence!)
Each child, or should I say parent, discusses their relationship from when they met to how they decided to get married to when things started to go wrong and finally the inevitable moment when they decided to get divorced. What really makes this show work is the shocking candidness of these segments partnered with excellent delivery by the cast. One of the biggest laughs of the night comes from a blunt answer Beverly gives her daughter about the demise of her marriage and how she has coped since; “The older I get, the more I realize it’s all about me, and you’re just in the picture.” This kind of truthful sincerity is equally shocking as it is humorous. Criminal pasts, secret affairs and conversations about sex are also revealed in a straightforward matter that often made me wonder how these adult children reacted to such honesty (but that’s a different play).
How do you bring to life the very people that gave you life? I can only imagine that this might just be the one of the greatest acting challenges of these performers’ careers. Nonetheless Matthew Maher’s duel performance as both his mother and father is wonderfully executed. A slight change in posture and the clutching of a cardigan for mom and a brooding nervous laugh for dad help Maher skillfully switch between characters. Robbie Collier Sublett’s gender-bending performance as his Texan mother never crosses the line into playing a caricature of the tough-as-nails woman who gave him life. Jennifer R. Morris is devilishly charming as Beverly, perhaps the most bitter and angry of these divorcées, while Caitlin Miller’s bright-eyed, benevolent, deadpan portrayal of her Catholic mother is truly inspired.
A very simple homey set design by Mimi Lien, effective lighting by Ben Stanton, and atmospheric projections by Caite Hevner all aid in bringing the truthfulness of these stories to the foreground. If only Kauffman’s staging matched the rest of the design team. Kauffman has created too much busy work and unnecessary movement onstage than is needed to to stay true to the interruptions of the recorded interviews. Unfortunately it just translates into distracting chaos instead of helping to advance the story. You Better Sit Down: Tales from My Parents’ Divorce is a well conceived and acted piece on its own that doesn’t require any added business. The genuineness of the piece elicits feelings of a recent trip I had home for the holidays and phone calls from my parents. Perhaps we should all take a lesson from this show and sit down with our parents and hear their tales (divorced or not). At the very least it will make for a wonderful evening of entertainment.