WILLIAMSTOWN — Playwright Sharyn Rothstein has subtitled her overwrought new play, "Tell Me I'm Not Crazy," "a marriage play." As long as it stays that way, it's a reasonably engaging work, especially when it focuses on the son and daughter-in-law of the play's older married couple.
As it is, even as only "a marriage play," "Tell Me I'm Not Crazy" — at Williamstown Theatre Festival's Nikos Stage through Sunday — plunges us down a rabbit hole as Rothstein leaves no stone unturned, no corner, hallway or obstacle unexamined in her relentless examination of the joys, angst and vicissitudes of marriage, partnering and parenting. But Rothstein is not content to leave things there. "Tell Me I'm Not Crazy" also is about, among other things, ageism, retirement, illegal immigration, sexism in the workplace, how we are seen and, oh, yes, how could I forget, gun ownership — the steel rod that connects all the elements in "Tell Me I'm Not Crazy" from the get-go.
The comedy, which is having its world premiere in Williamstown, begins with Sol (Mark Blum), a recently retired 62-year-old HR manager for a midsize company, slipping into his own house with his newest possession: a handgun — to be exact, a Glock 26, a semi-automatic designed for concealed carry, popular among security guards. Certain that his about-to-be 60 wife, Diana (Jane Kaczmarek), isn't home, Sol takes his unloaded gun out of its case and, like a little boy playing with a toy handgun, begins waving it around, aiming and mock shooting at various targets, one of which winds up being the entering Diana, as she enters their home, shocked at what she is seeing. Sol justifies purchasing the gun in the wake of a brutal home invasion and rape of a neighbor by a gang of illegal immigrants. It's a decision that will have serious consequences for the family, especially when their daughter-in-law, Alisa (Nicole Villamil in such a beautifully wrought, poignantly shaded performance) and son, Nate (a richly crafted performance by Mark Feuerstein) decides she cannot let her two boys — three-year-old Jack and his infant brother, Rafa — spend any time at all in their grandparents' home as long as the gun is in the house.
"I know you think you're protecting the people you love from what you can't control," Alisa says to Sol, with barely controlled rage. "Well, I'm protecting them from what we can."
"Tell Me I'm Not Crazy" flows between the unresolved issues in Sol and Diana's 38-year marriage and Nate and Alisa's struggle to sustain a household and raise two boys — one of whom, Jack, is a supersensitive child who is acting out in his preschool.
There is a good deal of talk throughout "Tell Me I'm Not Crazy" about Sol having been a stay-away dad, focusing on his own job, leaving Diana, a stay-at-home mom, to raise Nate. In retirement, Sol is as much of an absentee — emotionally more than physically. He is ill-prepared for retirement, especially when it has been more or less forced upon him. He now goes to the firing range on occasion to sharpen skills that defy his meager abilities. Meanwhile, Diana, who now teaches middle-school math, also continues to take care of the needs of their everyday life, providing for Sol, who seems simply to have given up and retreated; his only passion in life now is his Glock 26.
"I'm saying your mother does all the work," Alisa tells Nate at one point. "I've never seen your dad fill a bottle, or wipe down a counter, or clear the table. I actually don't think he knows how to clear the table."
For Diana, Sol's attachment to his Glock and the consequences that result are the final straw as she stands up for herself and takes charge fully of a life and a marriage that has been lived in disappointment, especially now with Sol retired.
"All these years you were working so hard I thought it was to support our family," she says confronting him with pain and resentment. "I never imagined it was actually because you didn't want to spend time with me."
Kaczmarek's Diana is nobody's fool. She presents as a strong woman. She has spent 38 years of marriage denying or ignoring certain truths and it has cost her.
And so, as she marks her 60th birthday, she decides it is time to tend to her own needs as she makes a desperate effort to make Sol connect, at last, with her, with Nate, with Alisa, with Rafa, and especially with Jack.
For all of Blum and Kaczmarek's considerable skills, there is a borderline caricaturish sensibility around Sol and Diana — a kind of been-there-heard-that aura that only on occasion surrenders to authenticity, chief among those moments a touching mother-daughter-in-law conversation about motherhood and its trials.
The real pulse of the play, especially in this Moritz Von Stuelpnagel-directed production, beats in the relationship between thirtysomething "life partners," Alisa and Nate, both of whom are played with such pitch-perfect resonance, honesty, nuance and authenticity. Nate is a struggling wannabe photographer but his career is going nowhere, for which he might be largely responsible. The outspoken Nate may well be his own worst enemy. He becomes a stay-at-home dad — left to deal with Jack's demanding behavior and Rafa's diapers, while Alisa pursues her own career ambitions working in an ad agency as an account manager. Her ambition is to have an agency of her own. Meanwhile she is up for a promotion to head accounts manager. Her first assignment involves a client in Omaha, a distance from the unnamed city in which they live. Alisa is bright, resourceful and creative, but she has no illusions with regard to why she's been given this particular assignment. She's the right gender and the right ethnicity — Hispanic — for this particular client. Short of moving the whole family to Omaha, Alisa settles for having to be there three days and nights a week. Each wants to do the right thing with love, with respect, with need. And so as the negotiations between Nate and Alisa begin in earnest, the situation begins taking its toll and your heart simply aches for these two. Feuersten and Villamil play all of this splendidly, with grace, insight, humor and profound understanding, especially in a remarkably written and played scene late in the play in which everything between them comes to a head.
"Do you see me?" Alisa asks Sol at one point. The question goes straight to the heart of a play whose characters are each, in their own way, asking the same question; seeking a meaningful answer. Scratch away the big social issues in "Tell Me I'm Not Crazy" and you'll find a love story: a warm, understanding, gently humorous play about four decent people — two generations — doing their best to live lives in which each of them is seen for who they truly are.
How's that for an issue?