Anyone hoping for a trip down memory lane with Bitsy Mae, Brother Boy, Latrelle and LaVonda had better check their expectations at the door of New Conservatory Theatre Center. Playwright and director Del Shores explores lives a little less obviously sordid in “This Side of Crazy.”
He hasn’t taken all the fun out of dysfunction, but this new play definitely needs work.
Meet the Blaylocks. Ditty (Christine Macomber), the songwriting matriarch of the clan, is a Southern golden girl of not insignificant renown on the Christian music scene. She lives with her eldest daughter Rachel (Cheryl Smith), who is still active in marital relations with her quarter-century-comatose, never-seen husband. Rachel and her sisters Abigail (Alison Whismore) and Bethany (Amy Meyers) performed through their childhood as The Blaylock Sisters, “little superstars for Jesus.”
Ditty, who is prone to playing Russian roulette with an unloaded revolver, may be honored with a career-retrospective television spectacular, but only if she can deliver a “guaranteed to be ratings-busting” reunion performance by her seriously estranged daughters. Let the games begin.
Family secrets, shaped by betrayals and layered with blame and guilt, have been a fertile orchard for Shores. It’s been particularly true when dressing them up — and then skewering them — in the bibles-and-bows tropes of lower-middle-class, conservative, Southern, Christian characters as in the “Sordid Lives” saga.
He is more nuanced here, but in shedding the easy and concise surface notes of drag queens and conversion therapy, the exposition becomes overlong and ultimately exhausting. “This Side of Crazy” feels inspired by the scale of “August: Osage County” but lacks that play’s intricate character shadings and interconnected structure.
Here characters seem to talk more at than to each other, laying out lengthy backstories and dropping hints of secrets that don’t always add to the conflict or to the resolution, which has one perfectly reasonable ending and then an epilogue which, while nicely played, is not really necessary. The playwright needed a director strong enough to request cuts.
Carrying those extra pages burdens the actors with long monologues. While each of the four ladies achieves some wonderful moments of pathos, passion and welcome laughs throughout the show, a tighter script would really help their good work shine.
The physical production deserves kudos, particularly for the multi-level set by Kate Boyd that admirably creates enough defined playing spaces to accommodate the screenplay-ish script, which, if not trimmed, might be better developed as a one-season cable series.
This Side of Crazy
Presented by New Conservatory Theatre Center
Where: Walker Theatre, 25 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sunday; closes Oct. 20
Tickets: $25 to $55
Contact: (415) 861-8972, nctcsf.org