directed by Jeff Zinn
music by Phil Schroeder
Boston Playwright’s Theatre Facebook Page
Review by Kitty Drexel
(Boston) Loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Charlie Sussman (Ken Baltin) is turning 75 and his entire family has come to celebrate with him at his Connecticut beach house to celebrate in The Sussman Variations. His son Jonathan (Steven Barkhimer) has a paper on The Tempest to write that will put his career on the world map. His daughter Janey (Erin Cole) has a big secret to share with the family and is afraid that they won’t share her happiness. Deirdre (Laura Latreille) needs to practice for her international tour and attempts to keep the peace. Granddaughter Miranda (Lauren Thomas) is on house arrest until she writes her college essay. Margery (Cheryl McMahon), Charlie’s wife, wants to throw a party that will reunite the family despite their differences. Each family member suffers under the weight of familial expectations, frustrated with the conflict of whom they are and whom they supposed they should be.
This sweet New England drama is about the differences within each member of a family and the similarities that they share. Although it features the charming music of Phil Schroeder, it is not a musical. Individual performances are used as plot devices and not to showcase performer’s talents, . The music is a character of its own serving as the intermediary between characters that want to connect through words but cannot. Music gives us glimpses of vulnerability as characters remove their masques or put them on as they perform. Through a duet, Charlie expresses his love to his children and granddaughter. He uses the piano as a mouthpiece for the words he cannot say. Unfortunately, this method only works for the family members that are musically literate. Charlie is eventually forced to communicate through the English language in order to reach his children, who express their gratitude with varying degrees of success.
The score captures the quirk and depth of Charlie’s character with a touch of darkness. Batlin matches the score so closely that the audience isn’t sure who is playing who, Charlie or the music. This is striking as many of the musical numbers are piped in from the tech booth with the exception of Thomas’ violin playing. She plays with a tender sincerity that is a joy to hear; it’s a contrast against the very real frustrations of the characters around her.
Boston Playwright’s Theatre has brought a cozy look at Connecticut living to the stage. The theater is hardly recognizable with it’s whitewash walls and interior decorating. The cast functions as a believable family: each character nestled in their part, playing up New England stereotypes. Although at times overly sentimental, this is a treat for those of us who grew up here and it can offer a rare insight to those visiting.