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Filmmaker Demme stumbles in theater directing debut

Family Week

By Frank Scheck

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - It’s admirable that Jonathan Demme would want to attempt to give new life to “Family Week,” a play by his longtime friend and occasional collaborator Beth Henley that met with a tepid critical and commercial reaction upon its debut more than a decade ago. Unfortunately, the veteran filmmaker, making his stage directorial debut, has done neither himself nor the work any favors. This MCC Theater production of the play -- newly revised by the author -- is likely to meet the same fate as the original.

The brief (75-minute) one-act deals with the members of a family who have gathered together at a recovery center in the Arizona desert. They are there to support Claire (Rosemarie DeWitt), who has suffered a breakdown as a result of the recent unsolved murder of her teenage son.

During the course of brief scenes set during the succeeding days of the week, one witnesses the family members -- Claire’s mother, Lena (Kathleen Chalfant), her sister, Rickey (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), and her teenage daughter, Kay (Sami Gayle) -- work out their numerous issues in 12-step-style therapy sessions led by a solicitous counselor (played by all of the actresses at different times).

Playwright Henley, who dealt with similar dysfunctional family issues in far superior works like “Crimes of the Heart,” is unable to make her characters or situations engaging. With its procession of short scenes, the evening lacks momentum and quickly becomes tedious.

Although he has contributed a typically hip musical soundtrack and interesting (if also distracting) color-blind casting of the black Bernstine as Rickey, Demme is unable to bring much life to the proceedings. It’s clear why the piece attracted the filmmaker -- there are more than a few thematic similarities to his recent “Rachel Getting Married,” which also featured DeWitt and Bernstine -- but he hasn’t provided it with the same stylistic assurance he displays in his cinematic outings.

The performers do what they can with the hackneyed material, but despite their best efforts, “Family Week” feels as long as its title would suggest.