Chekhov meets Beth Henley in Of Good Stock, Melissa Ross’ melodramedy getting its New York premiere at Manhattan Theatre Club’s off-Broadway MainStage (after a spring unveiling in an entirely different production this spring at South Coast Rep). We’re in the comfortably appointed Cape Cod cottage bequeathed by a famous novelist to Jess, the eldest of his three motherless daughters. As the lights come up on Santo Loquasto’s deluxe set, Jess, looking a little weary (uh-oh) and her loving husband Fred, a food journalist, are anticipating the arrival of middle sister Amy and her fiancé, and the youngest, Celia, with her latest beau.
As with Henley’s Crimes Of The Heart (which this same company brought to New York in 1980), a crisis is behind this particular gathering. All three sisters are barely treading water emotionally, however, and each will get her appointed moment of catharsis in Lynne Meadow’s knowingly calibrated production. Jess (beautifully played by Jennifer Mudge, who may be familiar from stints on Madame Secretary, The Good Wife and other shows) is recovering from a mastectomy and quietly celebrating the fact that at 41, she has just outlived their mother. That fact is seemingly lost on the wildly annoying and narcissistic Amy (Alicia Silverstone, who has segued from Clueless to a substantial life on stage), obsessed with the details of her upcoming destination wedding in Tahiti to Josh (Greg Keller), a victim of hair plugs and more interior unattractiveness. Amy is given to bouts of tear-duct overflow and squinched-up cheek muscles at the slightest urging.
Last to arrive is Celia (Heather Lind, Turn, Boardwalk Empire), a free-wheeling knockabout apparently ready to decamp to Missoula, Montana with her hairy, much younger boyfriend Hunter (Nate Miller), who may or may not be angling for a chunk of the Stockton inheritance. The younger sisters’ sympathy for Jess is tempered by simmering resentment over the fact that Dad left her the house, which, Three Sisters-style, subtly poisons the sentimental atmosphere.
With its tiresome jokes — (“Brooklyn wants to be Portland so bad”), “artisanal” pickles, Fred’s affection for loud slacks and the like — Ross’ play takes way too much digging to unearth an underlying richness. But it’s there, indeed, in the second act, when circumstances conspire to bring these three orbiting but un-Russian sisters back into the family’s gravitational field. There’s also a terrific scene between Fred and Josh that’s unexpectedly powerful. All of the performances are deeply felt — I’ve neglected mention of Kelly AuCoin, whose Fred is a winning upbeat foil to Mudge’s Jess, a woman already intolerant of anyone pussyfooting around her ordeal — or her prospects.
And the best thing about Of Good Stock is the ending, which, it turns out, is no ending at all. It seems to end in mid-sentence, or mid-action, which I took to be the attitude of a realist-optimist. A sweet touch.