When the lights come up on the set of The Sunken Living Room, now playing at Southern Rep, you find yourself at the edge of a polyester grotto lined with thick shag carpet and furnished with an orange/brown sofa and stereo console encased in its own cabinet. The room even bears resemblance to the Three's Company apartment designed for the serial innuendos about roommates John Ritter, Suzanne Somers and the other one (Joyce DeWitt). Though far from the adolescent behavior of adults in that sitcom, this is more about adolescents struggling with adult behavior, and it's pleasantly complicated by the way sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll ambiguously mark their rites of passage, from easy escapes to emotional exile and inevitably home again.
Written by David Caudle, the play was supposed to premiere at Southern Rep last season but was pre-empted by Katrina. Instead, it premiered in Miami, where the play is set, and received critical acclaim there. This production reprises the Miami cast with John Magaro (Wade), Rudy Mungaray (Chip) and Arianne Ellison (Tammy) playing the three main roles. Local actress Staci Robbins (Lynette) joins them. While the dialogue is crisp and clever, this is a play about relationships and the strong acting here makes the production shine, particularly Magaro who projects a bookish, awkward 16-year-old who's socially inexperienced but trying to hold his family together emotionally.
The heavy kitsch of the '70s could be a distraction in a less earnest play, but here the time period is necessary and its appropriateness makes the production far more like Richard Linklater's film Dazed and Confused than the gags of television's That '70s Show. The trio of teens are living in a time period after Roe vs. Wade but before AIDS; after "Tune in, turn on, drop out" and before "Just say no." They're old enough to make adult decisions but also not mature enough to live without their parents' approval and attention.
The play takes place during a single evening as Wade and Chip's mother Lynette heads off to a bridge game, a place she'd much rather be. Wade settles into the living room to study while Chip heads out to pick up his girlfriend Tammy, but not before hitting up both his mother and Wade for money. The brothers both want to be home for a call from their perpetually absent father who is an airline pilot. Chip's constant departures and arrivals pace the story as he tries to score some cocaine and leaves Tammy with Wade. We soon learn that an elder sister has been pushed out of the house by their parents.
Chip and Wade incessantly engage in sibling rivalry and squabbling. Wade envies the attention his father pays to his brother and his athletic achievements. Meanwhile Chip taunts his meeker brother and is caught between wanting to escape the family and his anger that his home is not a more comforting environment for him. This all takes place in a living room that they are not meant to use. Instead, it's supposed to be pristinely preserved for some unnamed but lofty purpose, like the reception of guests or foreign dignitaries. Wade jokes that he studies there to keep the room from being lonely. And that tags the room as the driving metaphor for their family -- there's an appearance of things being tidy and right but really it's empty.
While Chip is off looking for drugs, Tammy engages Wade, disarming him with both her candor and by exposing his sexual innocence. The banter about the social interactions of freaks, jocks, nerds and other high school stereotypes is funny, but it's more amusing how they appropriate the teenage emotional roller coaster as it rushes from friendship to intimacy and plummets to petty bickering and around again. Magaro does an excellent job of conjuring the awkwardness of Wade's inexperience and sensitivity. Ryan Rilette's direction brings out Wade's angst in the first act and Chip's lusty rage in the second. If there's anything slightly amiss about the play, it's the '90s-era self-help regimen that Wade often espouses.
While Wade tries to keep everyone connected, Chip and Tammy's plights seem more introverted. If they can't find any appreciation, least of all from each other, then they'll settle for the easy pleasures of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. The frustration overheats in the second act, and the play explodes like a band thrashing a hotel room.
Wade finally stops trying to clean up after everyone else and the family gets a good look at the mess it has made.