When we praise a playwright for having dealt honestly with his characters, we generally mean that he has let them tear into each other, as Biff tears into Willy in "Death of a Salesman."
Robert Anderson's "I Never Sang for My Father" at the Ahmanson offers such a scene, also involving a grown-up son (Daniel J. Travanti) and his father (Harold Gould). A lot comes out that both men, particularly the son, were holding back.
But not everything. This play's honesty is its admission that a particular kind of son is never going to be able to play the scene that he wants to play with his father. Somewhere the old man will always have him over a barrel. And yes, it matters.
It's a play with reverberations, at least for conscientious sons, and the touring revival at the Ahmanson is decently enough acted so that you can put yourself in the situation. But there was a lot that Josephine Abady's players didn't get across at Friday night's performance, maybe because they were working so hard to get the lines across.
Gould didn't miss anything. He remembered the way an old man will mask his panic that his memory is fading by being twice as belligerent about details as before; the way an old man will flirt with a waitress until you could throw the menu at him; the way an old man would rather be considered a monster than be discounted.
Gould even allows the possibility that this old man is a monster. When he begins to recount the details of his triumphant business career during his wife's wake, your dander starts to rise on behalf of Travanti. Even in her coffin, mother (Dorothy McGuire) has to play a supporting role.
But the old man has taken a blow, and it catches up with him at an unexpected time--a moment that seemed absolutely real Friday night, as did Gould's refusal to take more than a moment's comfort from Travanti. No embrace in this family can last for more than a few seconds.
That's the pain of the play, and we needed to feel it more often and more specifically. Rather than sharing the little things that they had learned about the characters since they had started playing them this summer at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, Abady's actors worked on making sure we got the big picture.
To get across the idea that the son always feels like a kid in his dad's presence, for example, Travanti came close to turning him into a classic nerd--you could almost see the slide rule in his pocket. A trace of abashment would be enough here. It's more important to suggest the son's war for self-control as his father continues to affront him, and to get some spontaneity into the narration.
Again, Dorothy McGuire confined herself to the top half of the mother's role--the sweet, helpful, frail, worried-about-your father part. A line like "You haven't a mean bone in your body" emerges as an innocent compliment to Travanti, without the slight hint of contempt that a touchy son might pick up, or might think that he picked up.
In families, it's not what's said that hurts, or even what's meant. It's what's heard. Anderson's dialogue is everyday speech--which is part of its honesty--but there are nuances that aren't heard at the Ahmanson, making it seem a more conventional piece of storytelling than it really is.
From the title, for example, one might expect a scene where the son tries to "sing" in some symbolic way for the father. Not only don't we get this, we learn that the son never wanted to sing for him. In some ways this is a tougher play than "Death of a Salesman." Certainly there's less forgiveness in it.
The fourth member of the family is an out-of-town sister (Margo Skinner) who has long ago made her choices about the father. If some of her speeches sound like couch-talk (the son's accusation), they also present a reading of the situation with which the viewer may well agree. It's a strength that the play lets you doubt whether its hero is as much the loving son as he thinks he is.
To accommodate the play's many changes of scene (it was first written as a movie), David Potts' setting is virtually bare. That could be a strength on a platform stage, but it makes for a somewhat paltry-looking production on a big proscenium stage like the Ahmanson. The real gaps in this production, however, involve the words under the words. They deserve going after.
'I NEVER SANG FOR MY FATHER' Robert Anderson's 1968 play, at the Ahmanson Theater. Director Josephine R. Abady. Settings David Potts. Costumes Linda Fisher. Lighting Jeff Davis. Sound Scott Lehrer. With Daniel J. Travanti, Harold Gould, Dorothy McGuire, Margo Skinner, William Cain, Scott Kanoff, Sonja Lanzener, Edward Penn, Jeni Royer, Richard Thomsen. Plays Tuesdays-Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Thursday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2. Tickets $14-$35. Closes Jan. 31. 135 N. Grand Ave. (213) 410-1062 or (714) 634-1300.