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Originally published Friday, March 28, 2014 at 6:10 AM

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‘Royal Blood,’ ‘Checkoff in the Sun’

Reviews of “Royal Blood” and “Checkoff in the Sun,” both Seattle plays that examine families gone awry.


Seattle Times theater critic

THEATER REVIEW

‘Royal Blood’

By Sonya Schneider. An Onward Ho! production, through Friday, April 4, West of Lenin, 203 N. 36th St., Seattle; $20 (800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com).

Theater review

‘Checkoff in the Sun’

Through Saturday, April 19, at Eclectic Theater, 1214 10th Ave., Seattle; $12-$25 (206-679-3271 or eclectictheatercompany.org).

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Maybe the family in “Royal Blood” is related to England’s late Diana, Princess of Wales. Maybe not. That the lineage has mattered so much to this unhappy clan is far more germane to this intelligently wrought and performed world premiere by Seattle author Sonya Schneider.

Family dysfunction never goes out of style in American drama, but to avoid simply retreading familiar terrain from Eugene O’Neill to Tracy Letts’ “August: Osage County,” a writer must bring something fresh and compelling to the dinner table.

“Royal Blood” serves up some standard dish: a death in the family, a reunion of estranged kin, bitter child-parent conflicts, some dead-pet black humor (a la Sam Shepard), and some de rigeur sexual revelations.

But Schneider’s characters are sharply drawn, and the play’s stinging barbs and emotional repercussions make “Royal Blood” an absorbing family saga, despite the too-pat ending.

In an utterly lived-in turn, Todd Jefferson Moore is Cliff, a cantankerous, ailing old cuss, with a cruel streak that’s damaged his three children — especially the son who just committed suicide.

Cliff’s childlike daughter Deb (the marvelous, spooky-funny Amy Love) lives with her difficult dad but mainly inhabits her own whimsical world of JFK-era glamour and film fantasy. (Deb wafts around in her late mother’s prim designer suits and is a virtual encyclopedia of movie lore.)

Her big sister Dorothy (the aptly tough, impressive Mari Nelson), an ambitious journalist, has hardened defenses to repel Cliff’s mockery, and her mother’s elitism. She’s engaged in parental turmoil herself, raising a resentful, rebellious adolescent daughter, Cassiopeia (Nicole Merat).

The central plot driver in “Royal Blood” is easy to relate to: what will become of the naive, mentally challenged Deb in Cliff’s decline? But other knotty issues also make trust and communication difficult, during the tête-à-têtes and recrimination-laced wrangling on Cliff’s humble SoCal front porch. (You could live on Jennifer Zeyl’s set, with its potted foliage, comfy chairs and bug-repelling lights.)

The barbed exchanges, mixed emotions and committed acting, under Laurel Pilar Garcia’s direction, keep you tuned in. Even the standard-issue angry teen has hidden depths in Merat’s persuasive portrayal.

The script could be tightened. Some late revelations, ignited by the late son’s grieving friend Adam (David Hsieh), should be less melodramatic, and the ending less pat.

But there is plenty in “Royal Blood,” the acting and the script, to justify spending an evening at West of Lenin with another dysfunctional family.

“Checkoff in the Sun”

Seattle playwright Leonard D. Goodisman’s new drama “Checkoff in the Sun” is a fragmented, postmodern version of the dysfunctional family play. A comedy about death and obligation, “Checkoff” is often quite clever, but Eclectic Theater’s production struggles to convey its sideways humor effectively.

When the cancer-ridden Victoria (Molly Blades) gathers her close friends and family for a farewell vacation in the Southwest, quality time is scarce but jockeying for position is plentiful.

Who’s the best son? Who’s the closest friend? Who has the most meaningful memory? Spending a few last moments with Victoria is a box each character is there to check off, and they may even get the satisfaction of one of those accolades while they’re at it.

While husband Harvey (Jack Hilovsky) and his sons (Danny Herter, David N. Lewis) are in constant deflection and denial mode, friends Judy (Kelley Goode) and Barbara (Wendy Cohen) and brother William (William Phillips) each wallow in their own particular brand of self-absorption.

In Goodisman’s literate script, nearly every line of dialogue pings off the previous one, as characters talk past one another and twist words to achieve their own meaning in a flurry of heady, digressive retorts and wordplay.

This style can work well on the page, but it’s not the easiest thing to translate to the stage, and Eclectic’s cast often seems overwhelmed by the barrage of dialogue, tripping over their own lines and others’. This manner of interaction requires fleet back-and-forth, but it also needs precision. Poor timing renders many of Goodisman’s clever asides sadly inert.

Director Amy Baldwin and co-directors Goodisman and Ada McAllister fail to modulate the pace, and the result is a play that frequently muddles itself, hurtling toward a finale where it eventually collapses with exhaustion.

Dusty Somers: dustysomers@gmail.com



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