The title of Melissa Ross’s Of Good Stock turns out to be a rather lame pun. Fortunately it’s the least witty thing about this comedic new update on the “three sisters” theme. This Off-Broadway production by Manhattan Theatre Club stars Heather Lind (of TV’s Turn), Jennifer Mudge (Rocky on Broadway), and Alicia Silverstone.
Silverstone, now a Broadway veteran yet still best known to the wider public for her films, especially the smart Jane Austen-inspired 1995 teen comedy Clueless, gets top billing in press materials. But this is very much an ensemble piece, incisively written, crisply directed by Lynne Meadow, and acted with remarkable commitment from top to bottom by a cast of six.
Weepy middle-sister Amy (Silverstone) actually has the least stage time of the three Stockton sisters, daughters of a philandering Pulitzer Prize-winning author who died in ignominious fashion, leaving the family’s Cape Cod summer house to his eldest, Jess (Mudge), and volumes of emotional baggage to all three. Combined with a proclivity to illness passed down by their deceased mother, it has left the whole surviving family in a tangle of resentments, and left the two younger daughters, now in their early 30s, in a state that armchair psychologists could safely call classically maladjusted.
Jess’s 41st birthday brings all three to the old beach house, where Jess lives with her food-writer husband Fred (Kelly AuCoin) in the only more-or-less happy relationship the Stockton family has bred. The script very artfully reveals the couple’s dynamics and circumstances and the way the latter affect the former. There’s something they’re obviously not talking about during their affectionate opening scene before the guests arrive.
To backtrack just a moment: Even before a word is said, Santo Loquasto’s stunning set design speaks volumes. On entering the theater we see a well-crafted seaside scene of tall reeds and broken fences. But during the blackout before the opening curtain, the set has rotated to present the interior of the house. Tastefully crammed with two generations’ worth of furnishings, clean but lived-in, it’s bursting with busy character. (And for techies, there’s running water in the sink, and a bigger kitchen surprise to follow.)
The magnificent rotating set also includes a living room and a back patio. In all these settings we witness the sisters’ reunion, together with Jess and Fred’s first encounter with Amy’s and Celia’s new paramours. Greg Keller brings pinpoint focus and sharp humor to the high-strung Josh, who tries so hard to seem casual and easygoing in his new position as Amy’s fiancé. There’s lightning, almost visible, ready to strike between these two, both of whom live on the edge of their nerves, though showing it differently. We also meet Celia’s new boyfriend Hunter (Nate Miller), an actually easygoing midwesterner with a heavy case of upward vocal inflection, an interloper in this den of cynical, high-pressured summer-house New Yorkers.
Through superb naturalistic dialogue and intensely focused performances that the cast makes look easy, every one of these characters is fully fleshed out. The focus of energy in Act I is the hyperactive, emotionally volatile Celia, the polar opposite of the stoic and heroic Revolutionary War spy Lind plays on TV’s Turn. Whether making fun of Jess’s Brooklyn-hipster “artisanal” cuisine, wailing about her own body-image worries, or, in Act II after a number of surprises and revelations, zoning out of the conversation and intensely glaring off in the direction of the fourth wall, Celia a dynamo, but one whose reality I didn’t doubt for a second – Lind is Celia down to the bone.
Silverstone’s Amy is more exaggerated, very funny, yet believable as well, an emotional raw nerve: planning a doomed destination wedding, repeatedly running off in tears, and drawing the short straw in the immediate action, if not the long run. By contrast, Mudge’s Jess, the caregiver, projects still waters no matter what’s going on inside her. Matching this masterful portrayal of a woman living an everyday life while facing ultimate and terrible questions is AuCoin’s loving and supportive but stubborn and frightened husband.
If there’s a moral to be drawn from this surefooted comedy, perhaps it’s an update to the old saw that you can’t go home again. No, you can’t revert to a past stage of life, but a visit to the old homestead might be just the occasion for a cathartic disinvestment, as Amy so dramatically demonstrates in a brilliant, climactic seaside three-sisters scene of clashing and bonding.
Yet I don’t think morals are the main point of this play, or its great achievement. Above all, it’s a fully four-dimensional depiction of the lives of people who, despite sometimes larger-than-life characteristics and Lifetime-movie situations, seem as real as the people you really know. At a moment when lots of theater companies are experimenting with “immersive” productions, a solid traditional one like this meaty comedy, with all the creative pieces fitting together just right, is the true immersive art.
Of Good Stock runs at New York City Center through July 26.