by Wendy Coyle · July 18, 2014
The theater landscape of American dysfunctional family ranges in location from Eugene O’Neill’s seaside Connecticut to Sam Shepard’s Illinois to Tracy Lett’s Pahuska, Oklahoma so why not make room for Sean O’Connor’s suburban New Jersey? World of Sinatras gives us WWII soldier Jack Murdoch (played by an excellent Dennis Ostermaier) who meets and marries an artistic French war bride then uses the GI bill to become a psychiatrist. Jack, Marie, and their only child, Sam move to a well-to-do New Jersey suburb. Jack is successful, drinks heavily, cheats on his wife and pushes his son to be tough and unfeeling, to play sports and be an athletic like Di Maggio. The father is homophobic and constantly warns Sam not to be weak and emotional, forbidding him to pursue music or the arts.
As their American dream unravels, as Jack continues to physically and mentally abuse Marie (portrayed brilliantly by Danielle Delgado) 30 years will pass with Sam’s narration moving us along including scenes of Marie’s impotence and destruction that will enmesh her son even as she tries to save him by encouraging artistic expression. I found myself cringing and hurting with Marie and Sam, drawn in by the raw dialogue and action, hating Jack but hating Marie, too, for her docility in that era of the suburban housewife. Jeff Rubino as Sam, the son caught in the middle, is poignant and powerful as he struggles to come of age in that household.
The large canvas of history spanning the 1960’s through the 1990’s orients the audience; the events include the Kennedy assassinations, MLK, Kent State, Vietnam, Nixon but appears to have little effect on Sam’s character except as “duly noted”. I saw little passion on Sam’s part to participate in, to march or protest on these issues of his time. The safe suburb that gives the Murdoch’s the “good life” insulates Sam from a world view larger than the three family members and their legacy of the Irish relatives. instead of seeing the human condition illuminated in the 60’s, Sam cannot seem to see beyond his family’s dysfunction and drama.
Of course Sam is engaged in his contemporary world of sports, pot-smoking, discovering sex and Gloria, (a sweet Sarah Elmaleh) and hanging with his childhood friend Rooster ( a funny and delightful Justin Cimino ) who energizes the play whenever he appears. But even Rooster’s free spirit cannot fly beyond bored youthful thievery, drug use and delusion, he never leaves town either. Sam’s earnest adolescent monologues accompany the trials of the three friends and the family.
As one would expect from the title, music plays a role and Sinatra’s greatest hits and mellifluous voice that accompany Jack’s generation float in and out of the story. We also hear Dylan, Morrison, a brief Springsteen and other groups who punctuate the passing of time and action.
Baseball and its heroes also figure importantly in the plot. The Yankees are the foundation upon which Sam and his father connect and bond. Even the large phallic weapon Sam uses to save his mother in a classic oedipal vanquishing of the father, is an oversized baseball bat. I trust the significance was not lost on the psychiatrist Jack. Sam has finally become the brute his father wants him to be.
Costumes, lighting and sound assist the story as it moves through the decades and under the tight direction of Sydnie Grosberg Ronda reaches a cryptic conclusion. The set design does not change throughout the two acts reflecting the unchanging nature of the relationships.
At the end, with hints that Sam’s adult life will both mirror and diverge from his father’s, I was left wondering if suburbia, with its isolation from a larger life , its narrow monotony is as much a villain in the tragedy of the Murdochs as its flawed patriarch.