Ruth Zweigman is not a pleasant person to be around. She’s so negative that when she says “I’m in a bad mood,” her sister responds, “How can you tell?”
After making a typically harsh wisecrack about her daughter’s boyfriend, Ruth tries to lessen the pain by saying “I’m just thinking out loud.” The daughter replies, “Have you ever thought in silence?”
No, you wouldn’t want to live with Ruth. And now that she can’t take care of herself – she’s in recovery from eye surgery and foot surgery – the question of who she’s going to live with is a big one. Her sister won’t take her in: “I see her every couple of months,” she says. “That’s more than enough.” So it falls to Miranda, her 38-year-old doormat of a daughter, to take care of her. Miranda proposes bringing Ruth down from Long Island to Philadelphia to live with her. It’s “a terrible idea,” they both agree. But with familial bonds and Jewish guilt being what they are, they go ahead with the plan.
That’s the premise of All the Days, Sharyn Rothstein’s new play at the McCarter Theatre. As you can tell from the passages above, it’s a comedy with a lot of funny lines, most delivered in an uncomplicated setup/punchline format. But it also veers into dramatic territory, with mixed results.
In a series of concise, efficient scenes, Rothstein introduces us to Ruth and her extended family. Ruth is suffering from diabetes – hence all that surgery – but she’s still addicted to sugary snacks and drinks, even though those snacks might soon blind her or even kill her. She’s also grieving the recent death of her son David, who was, as she keeps heartlessly reminding Miranda, her favorite child.
Miranda is a single mom with a 13-year-old son who’s about to have his Bar Mitzvah, even though Miranda herself, seeking solace after David’s death, has just converted to Christianity. (“You’re trying to kill me” says Ruth, kvetching yet again.) Stew is Miranda’s boyfriend, whose touchy-feely pronouncements (“I’m still on my own journey”) prompt Ruth to roll her eyes.
Monica is Ruth’s cynical sister, who’s just as aggravating as Ruth but in different ways. Del is Ruth’s long-absent ex-husband, now returned. And Baptiste is a blind date who brings out Ruth’s softer side… proving that, yes, she does have a softer side. (But you figured that there would be a heart beneath that gruff exterior, didn’t you?)
All the Days – the play’s title is never explained – is an agreeable play filled with snappy one-liners. Most of the jokes are good, if formulaic; the sixtyish Monica has a joke about her arthritis and her sex life sounds like it could have come out of Joan Rivers’ act.
Yet Rothstein occasionally tries too hard to be outrageous. There’s a brief sex scene which, even though it’s far from explicit, seems inappropriate in such a sedate show. And there’s a comic scene late in act one revolving around Alzheimer’s disease jokes; the scene comes off as tasteless, cruel, and pointless.
There are fewer jokes in Act Two of All the Days, as Rothstein spends more time focusing on the family’s long-simmering conflicts. Some of these plot turns, such as Del’s attempt to reconcile with Ruth, flesh out the characters in intriguing ways.
Emily Mann’s fast-paced direction is excellent, and it’s helped by Daniel Ostling’s handsome sliding sets, which allow for swift scene changes.
Caroline Aaron plays Ruth with a deadpan delivery and a throaty voice reminiscent of the late comic Totie Fields. She gets great support from Ron Orbach as Del and especially from Leslie Ayvazian, who lands each of Monica’s punchlines with gusto. Monica is the type of upper class suburban housewife who never comes to any event less than fully prepared; in one of the show’s funniest low-key bits, Ayvazian is handed a cup of coffee and, without saying a word, casually reaches into her purse to pull out a packet of Splenda and a metal stirrer. It’s an offhand moment that perfectly defines her character.
As Miranda, Stephanie Janssen is overshadowed by this trio of comic veterans, but does a good job conveying her character’s ongoing exasperation. And she has her own fine support team: Justin Hagan as her boyfriend, who is not as much of a pushover as he initially seems, and Matthew Kuenne as her son, who is being pulled in several directions as once. And Raphael Nash Thompson has a genial manner as the new man in Ruth’s life.
All the Days doesn’t have a lot of surprises. You’ll like spending time with them, despite their flaws. And like them, All the Days is an imperfect, but highly likable, play.
Running Time: Two hours, including intermission.
All the Days plays through May 29, 2016 in the Berlind Theatre Auditorium at the McCarter Theatre Center – 91 University Place, in Princeton, NJ. For tickets, call the box office at (609) 258-2787, or purchase them online.