Emmitt & Ava
Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Edgemar Center for the Arts
Through June 18
There must be something cathartic for playwrights when they write prickly family dramas. The genre has existed for nearly as long as the form — one could argue that Oedipus Rex and Antigone are cut from the same cloth as A Long Day’s Journey Into Night, A Raisin in the Sun, and Other Desert Cities. If you put a family in an onstage living room, they’ll either yell at each other (i.e. a drama) or crack jokes (i.e. a comedy, like You Can’t Take It with You). Emmitt & Ava, a new play written and directed by Dominic Hoffman, tries to live somewhere between those two extremes.
The play is built around the intersection of two families: Wyatt (Tom Schanley) and Emma (Stephanie Schulz), parents of the eponymous Ava; and Eban (Tucker Smallwood) and Evan (Harry Fowler), father and brother of Emmitt. Wyatt and Emma, who are white, did not know that their daughter was dating Emmitt, who is black, until they both died in a car accident. Ava’s funeral has just concluded, and Eban has come over to Emma and Wyatt’s house in Venice to try and clear the air. Eban is upset that Wyatt and Emma didn’t attend Emmitt’s funeral and has a few bombshells to drop on Ava’s parents, who are trying to understand why Ava hid her boyfriend from them.
Things more or less play out as expected, but while the core character dynamics are compelling, the dialogue and direction fall short. The characters talk in circles, often repeating the same sentiments verbatim, and the moments that are intended to be comedic don’t always hit the mark. This contributes to the slow pacing of the play, which feels longer than its 90 minutes. It does start to come into its own about halfway through, though, when Evan, a passionate young man who has no time for white people’s nonsense, arrives. His presence enlivens the scene, if only because he’s the only character willing to call Emma on her bad behavior.
Emma is by far the most problematic character in the show, on a few levels. Most glaringly, she’s the kind of white person who believes reverse racism is a real thing (it’s not), so it’s grating to hear her ill-informed opinions on race ad nauseam. There’s also the issue of performance: as Hoffman wrote her, Emma feels like a stereotypical rich bitch, but Schulz doesn’t seem comfortable in that role, so her performance feels more artificial than those of Schanley or Smallwood as the patriarchs.
The idea of a story about the gnarly, personal intersections of race and grief is a good idea, and Hoffman has identified a good set of characters to try and tackle those issues, but the play as a whole fails to evolve into something more than a good idea.
Edgemar Center for the Arts, 2437 Main St., #B, Santa Monica, playing Thurs.- Sun., 8 p.m.; through June 18; brownpapertickets.com/event/2907900. Running time: 90 minute with no intermission.