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THEATER : Fractured Family : 'Meet the Wilsons' bursts the 'Father Knows Best' mentality about households. The sitcom premieres this weekend.

February 19, 1993|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Janice Arkatov writes about theater for The Times

They're not the Cleavers or the Bradys or the Huxtables--or even the Bundys.

They're much, much worse.

They're the Wilsons.

"I write about things that bug me," says Richard Polak, whose sitcom satire "Meet the Wilsons" premieres this weekend at Burbank's Victory Theatre under the direction of Jules Aaron. "And what's bugged me most the last 10 years is the deterioration of the American family. On sitcoms, everyone's happy, has no problems. But that's not the way it really is. The morals and values in this country are being destroyed."

Polak's play opens like a sunny sitcom, introducing a peppy theme song and the fun family. "They're a little quirky, but normal," the 36-year-old playwright says. "But gradually, things start to go awry. And we find out what goes on under the surface: the sex, the violence. In the story, the daughter comes home to Ohio after living in California and wreaks havoc on the family, changes everyone's lives."

Co-producer Maria Gobetti has been exploring the six-character play in workshops for more than a year.

"I liked that it explores the underbelly of the American family," she says, "punctures that 'Donna Reed'/'Father Knows Best' mentality. I remember growing up thinking that's how families were supposed to be. The Wilsons' difficulties come from being so repressed, not communicating. It's time people started talking about what's going on in interpersonal relationships, whether it's dark or not. But the TV medium tends to put a gloss on all of that."

Polak says he believes that the sitcom is an apt analogy for the relentless, flashy escapism that popular entertainment has come to embrace.

"We all use TV," he says. "I even used to write for TV. For six months, I worked for Orion TV on the Betty White show 'Just Men.' I found it enjoyable for what it was, but not terribly self-exploring. I decided I wasn't going to contribute to the world that way. And yet sitcoms do have their place. If people laugh, that offers something. It's when they think that's life and don't look any further into themselves--that's the problem."

Born in Japan to an Army lawyer whose work took the family all over the world, Polak finally landed in New York, where he attended high school, Alfred University and graduate school at Columbia University (stopping short of completing his studies). In 1984, he moved to Los Angeles. In 1985, his play, "Steak Night," was produced at the Complex. He makes his living as an international consultant at Foster-Higgins, advising American companies on their overseas benefits.

But clearly, theater is his love. In New York, Polak and Tony winner Martin Markinson are partners in Cinestage Productions--they produced "Nagasaki Dust" last year in Philadelphia. Here, he has run the Playwrights Theatre out of the Westwood Playhouse since 1986.

"What I really want to do is contribute," he says. "I believe I have 10, 20 years to develop as an important writer. Others have already developed, and my goal is to put them out in the world."

In the meantime, the writer figures that his own creative juices will continue to be heated by the world around him. "I get angry at injustice, immorality, unethical people--and yet I write about them," he says.

"They're my main characters."

Where and When What: "Meet the Wilsons." Where: Victory Theatre, 3326 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank. When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; indefinitely. Price: $15 to $17. Call: (818) 841-5421.

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