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Spotlight on Off-Broadway Theater: The Vineyard Theatre and “Too Much Sun”

Jennifer Westfeldt and Linda Lavin in "Too Much Sun" at the Vineyard Theatre. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Jennifer Westfeldt and Linda Lavin in “Too Much Sun” at the Vineyard Theatre. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

This is the second piece in the Daily’s Special Summer Feature on NYC Theater.

Outside of New York, off-Broadway shows rarely get discussed and are often even wrongly seen as second string, even though this is often where great new work gets its start. While in New York, my first off-Broadway stop was the Vineyard Theatre. Tucked away on 15th Street in Manhattan just a block from Union Square, this 125-seat theater, in which there are no bad seats, is more important than its modest size might suggest.

Despite only staging two to three productions each year, it’s had many successes. The Vineyard initiated the runs of such musicals as “Avenue Q,” which has since transferred to Broadway for an open run, and “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” the play for which Audra McDonald won a Tony this year. And it’s been the testing ground for many of comic playwright Nicky Silver’s plays, whose “The Lyons” later had a run on Broadway.

It was for Silver’s latest play, “Too Much Sun,” for which I ventured into the Vineyard.

The Vineyard Theatre strikes me as the San Francisco Playhouse of New York: a small, off-the-beaten-path theater that produces consistently good work, with better production values than many of the more mainstream venues while on a tighter budget. Like the SF Playhouse, it attracts name talent, and “Too Much Sun” was no exception, starring Jennifer Westfeldt (“Friends With Kids”) — fresh off her run of the Steven Soderbergh-helmed “The Library” at the off-Broadway Public Theatre — and Linda Lavin — a Silver veteran — as her mother, a narcissistic theater actress.

Most of the play takes place at the Cape, and the set is an extremely high fidelity summer home porch: you can even see the garden hose on the side of the house if you’re far enough off to the side. It reminded me of the set of the SFPlayhouse’s “The Aliens” in 2012 — small and efficient, but detailed and thoughtful. Downstage right is a second location, a grassy patch that leads to the beach, and there were some great scenes alternating between the action on the porch and that on the beach.

Jennifer Westfeldt, Linda Lavin and Matt Dellapina in "Too Much Sun" at the Vineyard Theatre. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Jennifer Westfeldt, Linda Lavin and Matt Dellapina in “Too Much Sun” at the Vineyard Theatre. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

When Audrey (Linda Lavin, simply marvelous) has creative differences with the director of a Chicago production of “Medea,” she heads to her daughter, Kitty’s (Jennifer Westfeldt), summer house to stay as an uninvited guest. They haven’t been in the same room together for almost two years, so Kitty spends the time stress-eating junk food, while also dealing with her self-absorbed husband’s (Ken Barnett) abortive attempt at writing a novel.

Westfeldt is excellent as the nervous daughter of a narcissist who never really saw her daughter clearly. She sometimes hangs out with the neighbor boy, Lucas, (Matt Dickson) a gay recent high school grad who sells pot. His wealthy father, Winston (Richard Bekins), takes a liking to Audrey, who sees his affection as an opportunity to become a kept woman. At one point, Audrey’s agent’s assistant (Matt Dellapina), an aspiring rabbi who can’t pronounce “chuppah” properly, arrives to stir up more trouble. Emotions run high and things start to fall apart.

What follows is a funny and often thoughtful play about how appearances can be deceiving. If you only take Kitty’s word for it, Audrey’s a heartless bitch, but Silver provides enough context for Audrey’s bad parenting to make her sympathetic. Winston may seem like just a kind and easily fooled old man, but his son thinks differently, and before too long we see he’s not so wrong about his father. We shift our perspective of all the characters, as information is revealed, and we see how incomplete each character’s take on the others often is. It’s just unfortunate that the unhappy and aimless Lucas is never fully motivated despite a strong performance. As written, he’s a walking plot device to bring some characters together and get in between others.

There’s much juicy and clever dialogue in the play, and the cast couldn’t be stronger, but it’s also got the marks of a new work. It could still use some paring down: the second act, especially, drags. There are also some unnecessary theatrical devices. Partway through the first act, Kitty soliloquizes in a spotlight about how she never had the chance to meet her father before he died and Lucas has a similar soliloquy about his mother’s suicide. Neither of these is necessary since the same information gets revealed in dialogue in later scenes. It takes you out of the moment with a showy device. It’s there, though, to establish the convention, which reappears later to help tie up loose ends. With a bit of reworking, this could be a top notch play. But that’s part of why we need venues like The Vineyard: it’s a safe place to try out exciting new works, without the high financial stakes of a Broadway production.

“Too Much Sun” wrapped The Vineyard’s 2013-14 season. In winter 2015, they’ll be mounting the world premiere of the musical “Brooklynite” by Peter Lerman and Michael Mayer, with the latter directing. Mayer has also helmed “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and “Spring Awakening”. And in spring 2015, they’ll be showcasing the world premiere of the comedy “Gloria; Or Ambition” by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, the winner of The Vineyard’s Paula Vogel Playwriting Award. If you’re in town on a budget, you can buy rush tickets to the shows for $20 at the box office two hours prior to the performance, if it’s not sold out. It’s certainly a venue worth checking out.