The Sussman Variation
Boston Playwrights Theatre
through November 18
Charlie Sussman is a passionate composer but a distant father. Working passionately on a new Broadway-bound musical, the fictional two-time Tony Award winner has rarely brought that kind of commitment and caring to his relationship with his straight son Jonathan and lesbian daughter Janey. Now, as his 75th birthday approaches, a family reunion is giving the distant Connecticut Jewish patriarch a second chance with his children.
If the subject matter sounds familiar, the approach is somewhat different. The Sussman Variations, a new play by Richard Schotter premiering at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, actually includes original music by Phil Schroeder meant to represent Charlie’s past work as well as his new efforts. While Schotter’s drama could do with more subtlety at times of conflict and less neatness in its resolution, it does present a heartfelt celebration of both family and human diversity.
The Sussman are certainly the classic dysfunctional family in back story as well as at the start of play. Charlie charms his granddaughter Miranda but infuriates her father Jonathan. Miranda’s mentoring grandfather endorses his violinist granddaughter’s desire to pursue a musical theater career in New York. Jonathan, a Shakespeare scholar and Berkeley faculty member with an ego as well developed as Charlie’s, wants her to study literature. Jonathan is already in proverbial hot water with his concert pianist wife Deirdre, who is tired of putting his academic advancement ahead of her own.
The tensions do not stop there. Jonathan and Janey resent not only their father’s distance but also his having left their mother twenty years earlier. Not surprisingly, they are not particularly cordial to Charlie’s second wife Margery, who is trying to reconcile the family at the birthday celebration.
Janey is in many ways the least certain family member about where she stands with her father. Janey owns her graphics company and shares a house in the California hills with her love Janine. Charlie is fond of saying that he likes Janine-especially because she knows the songs in his shows- but has not yet opened the gift Janey has brought him. Janey, warming to Miranda, confides that she and Janine have married but worries that her father will not understand. Janey may sense that Charlie has fully accepted her sexual orientation. Yet can she be sure that he will embrace that marriage if she opens up to him about it?
Director Jeff Zinn and a fine ensemble make all of the alternating scenes of uncertainty , resentment and understanding convincing and absorbing. The cast are so strong that some theatergoers may not mind that affinities with Shakespeare masterwork The Tempest are sometimes less than subtle. Jonathan’s selection to work on a new annotation addition of the play is no problem. Even naming his daughter Miranda, a major character in The Tempest, is not troubling either. Still, there is a pivotal catalyst-like storm that may seem a heavy-handed element to some audience members. By then, though, the cast have made the family dynamics so involving that even the most demanding theatergoer will embrace the play’s good feeling.
Heading that sterling ensemble is Ken Baltin, persuasively larger than life as the legendary fictional composer. Baltin captures Charlie’s maddening ego but also his genuine love for family-especially as he reveals a secret that helps to explain his distance. High points include Baltin’s duet as Charlie with Lauren Thomas as Miranda on one of his songs and with Erin Cole as Janey in a very stirring moment of truth about her sexuality and her life with Janine.
Baltin is persuasive as both composer and family man. Thomas, a Boston University senior, plays violin with fine tone and sings sweetly. Erin Cole is instantly arresting as Janey-whether remembering an early attraction to an unseen young counterpart named Ellen or reaching out to her father in the later going. Steve Barkheimer’s domineering Jonathan, Laura Latreille’s spunky Deirdre, and Cheryl MacMahon’s peacemaking but well-grounded Margery are equally sharp. Rounding out the solid ensemble is Harrison Brian in the flashy but somewhat fluffy role of Todd, a neighbor with a clear interest in Miranda and the “Tempest”-signaling nickname Zephyr.All move easily through Christina Todesco’s smartly detailed Sussman home.
In the end, Shroeder’s tuneful music and Schotter’s affecting celebration of family ties and individual self-determination transcend any weaknesses in the play’s structure and allusion to Shakespeare. Charlie advises Miranda to do what makes her happy. Theatergoers should find nearly two hours of engaging harmony about love and sexual identity in The Sussman Variations.