Family Nuance

A new play by Toni Press-Coffman has the potential to be spectacular

New House, New Dog is a new play by Tucsonan Toni Press-Coffman, billed as "a comedy about pets, painting and aging parents."

Well, the pets and painting are there mainly for alliteration; they're actually almost incidental to this play, which does, indeed, focus on how adults cope with their difficult, elderly progenitors.

And comedy? Yes, it's funny, but the humor is based on character and social interaction and reaction, not snappy jokes. And like the theater works of French Romantic playwright Alfred de Musset, Press-Coffman's comedy is just sufficiently uneasy that, by the end, it slides imperceptibly into drama.

The play opens this weekend; last week, I attended a run-through in a bare rehearsal room minus lights, music and any other stage trappings but the essential furniture and props. Because the production was a work in progress, it can't be subjected to a regular review. But, unfinished as the show was, the script, actors and director had already come together so securely that I'm already as enthusiastic about this work as I was about Press-Coffman's That Slut! (see "Sexual Healing," Sept. 4, 2003).

New House, New Dog is set in two contemporary households. In one, 40-some-year-old Jackson lives with his mother, Ann; he's the only one of several siblings willing to care for her as severe arthritis and its attendant emotional problems restrict her to a wheelchair. Ann remains feisty, though, and mother and son spend much of their time together bickering. Some of their arguments emerge from nothing, and some emerge from everything, as family spats do.

Jackson has met a woman he wants to marry. Her name is Tanny, and she's understandably reluctant to move in with her mother-in-law. Jackson resolves to find a well-muscled male nurse to care for Ann in her own home, and locate for himself and his bride a new house suitable for newlywed privacy. Jackson neglects to mention this plan to his mother, though; the only thing she knows is in the works is that Tanny is trying to find her a Humane Society dog, just like the one Ann used to love--except she didn't love it quite enough to remember its name after all these years.

Meanwhile, Jackson's best friend, Tim, has his own parent trouble. Tim and his wife, Suzanne, live with his dad, Gordon, a surly old man who remains shut in his room most of the time; Gordon and Suzanne can't stand each other. This becomes a particular problem when artist Suzanne quits her day job so she can stay home and paint full-time.

So many elements of New House, New Dog could descend into comedy cliché: the bitter old man, never seen, yelling from offstage; the mouthy mother, maybe or maybe not a hypochondriac. (Does she get out of her wheelchair and prance about when nobody's around?) Yet Press-Coffman elects not to take the easy way out with these characters. Gordon may not be fully fleshed out--he takes a fairly minor part in the proceedings--but he and especially Ann aren't just flat types; they have reasons for being the way they are, nuances, and Ann in particular refuses to remain a static figure of antagonistic fun.

Ann's success as a rounded, believable character begins with Press-Coffman's writing, of course, but it has just as much to do with the acting of Lesley Abrams. The portrayal is brassy (especially when Ann is high on painkillers) but never tarnished by the routine comic mother-in-law shtick. Abrams never, ever lets Ann turn whiny and fake-pathetic. Ann may be physically worn down, and her family relationships haven't turned out the way she'd like, but she has retained a strength and confidence of which she is intermittently aware, and periodically exploits with good intentions.

This is a play in which many things are spoken about (and spoken to), but remain offstage--Gordon, the new dog and Jackson's siblings are the most obvious. I wonder if Ann's past life should have remained offstage, too. Press-Coffman includes a swift series of flashbacks tracking Ann from young lady in love to beleaguered young mom. The good thing about this scene is that it humanizes Ann, reminding us that she has a full backstory, and can't be reduced to merely an assertive, sometimes-difficult old lady in a wheelchair. Yet does this make Ann's past too explicit for the good of the play? Is the playwright doing too much of the actor's work for her?

I'm not ready to answer that yet, but I do appreciate Press-Coffman's overall polish as a playwright. More than ever here, she's displaying the patience to sustain scenes well, even through the character-developing small talk; she also exhibits the discipline to end scenes before they lose focus. The dialogue is natural and intelligent, rather than arch and self-consciously sophisticated. (Think Woody Allen.)

Director Glen Coffman, the playwright's husband, keeps the characters interacting just like the old friends and relations they're supposed to be, and even in the pre-preview run-through I saw, all the actors were already up to Abrams' standard: Terry Erbe as a put-upon but not insensitive Jackson, Noel Chester a forthright Tanny, Brian Wees a very likable Tim, Amy Erbe an exasperated but never flighty Suzanne, and Ed Fuller a blustery, potentially vicious Gordon.

If there's anything to criticize, it's that there was little edge to most of the mother-son arguments, at least until nearly the end. Perhaps this is OK; Ann and Jackson have been bickering about the same things for so long that they're not fully invested in the spats anymore--just like in real life.

Ultimately, New House, New Dog isn't at all about painting or pets; it's about that peculiar need of parents not merely to keep their kids in their lives, but to remain present in their kids' lives, which is something rather different. The play even hints that sometimes, absence can be a perverse sort of presence.