The title "Jumping for Joy" is a misleadingly cheerful portal into Jon Marans' new play at Laguna Playhouse. When Emily Mavin, a 40ish schizophrenic, starts jumping on her bed, it's from frustration, not joy.
Emily's latest round of bed-jumping is set off by a visit from her younger brother Michael, a New York lawyer who forces a discussion of what will happen to Emily after her 70-year-old father and caretaker, Samuel Mavin, dies.
It's a potentially poignant situation. But the play--in its premiere--has yet to achieve its intended power.
Marans, best known for "Old Wicked Songs," grew up in the Washington suburb of Silver Spring, Md., and the play is set there. In a short essay, Marans wrote that much of the play "is not remotely autobiographical." But he cites "one small moment, almost inconsequential to the play, which is so peculiarly personal to me that it hits me in a joyous yet oddly uncomfortable, almost unsettling way."
He doesn't identify that moment. But "oddly uncomfortable, almost unsettling" sums up Marans' attitude toward his own characters, particularly Michael.
Michael advocates investigating the possibilities of long-term institutional care for his sister. But his father wants Michael to move Emily into the New York home Michael shares with his (unseen) wife and daughter. Emily has mixed feelings--she sometimes declares she can take care of herself, but she clearly relishes her father's solicitous attention.
In Richard Stein's staging, Daniel Nathan Spector's Michael appears level-headed and reasonably caring and affectionate.
If he hasn't been around the old homestead very often, the pressures of job and family in New York offer a ready explanation. His attitude that his father hovers too much over Emily and that she should live more independently, even if it's in a halfway house, seems defensible.
Yet Marans gives Michael a couple of odd mannerisms that, in a heavy-handed way, point an accusatory finger back at him. His face sometimes twitches, and worse, he occasionally closes his fingers around Emily's throat as if he's going to strangle her.
It's unclear whether this throat business is a little game the siblings play, whether we're supposed to take it seriously as a symptom of Michael's repressed feelings, or whether it's just Marans' attempt at black comedy inside a play that isn't a black comedy. Whatever the motivation, the fake strangling doesn't seem to ruffle either Emily or Samuel, even though Samuel is depicted as fussy and overprotective of his daughter.
Perhaps the amiable Spector hasn't captured Michael's toxic side. But perhaps the playwright hasn't figured out the character. The stage directions in the script refer to Michael's "acid core," which seems like sheer hyperbole.
Deborah Van Valkenburgh, as Emily, has more justification to go through sudden mood changes than her brother and handles them with aplomb. Marans and actor Allan Miller depict Samuel's controlling personality with affection. He's a nervous eccentric--who loves to bring out his big map in which he crosses out those countries that have insulted Israel--more than a domineering tyrant, even though Emily's and Michael's language suggests otherwise.
Marans and Stein's company depict the undercurrent of familial love well, most evident in a winsome second-act revival of an old play-acting routine from the kids' childhood. But the play isn't as successful at bringing its darker feelings about the past and the future out into the open.
"Jumping for Joy," Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends at the Oct. 6 matinee. $42 to $49. (949) 497-2787. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes.
'Jumping for Joy'
Deborah Van Valkenburgh...Emily Mavin
Daniel Nathan Spector...Michael Mavin
Allan Miller...Samuel Mavin
By Jon Marans. Directed by Richard Stein. Set by Don Gruber. Lighting by Tom Ruzika. Costumes by Julie Keen. Sound by David Edwards. Production stage manager Scott Harrison.