Calling their process “investigative theater,” the Civilians have pioneered a method of making theater in which interview subjects are selected in accordance with a chosen theme. Material culled from the interviewees’ responses is then shaped into a mosaic-like script, which is then performed by a versatile ensemble of actors. In You Better Sit Down: Tales From My Parents’ Divorce, the exploration takes a personal turn, as the text is derived from statements taken from the performers’ own parents. In lesser hands, a play built on such a premise could easily make the audience feel like a fly on the wall at a group-therapy session. But the four cast members go at their tasks with a purity of purpose, allowing the audience fill in the emotional blanks. The result is a kind of quiet catharsis, less a reopening of old wounds than a compassionate look back at past events.
Under Anne Kauffman’s disciplined direction, the actors find unforced humor and vulnerability in their folks’ cadences and quirks. All four actors play their own mothers, with Matthew Maher also doubling as his dad. Raised in the Northeast, Maher, Caitlin Miller, and Jennifer R. Morris come from baby boomer parents. Activism plays a part in most of their recollections, as does, for some, the social and sexual looseness of their parents’ era. Robbie Collier Sublett’s family followed a different arc, living according to the customs of genteel Southern respectability until his father’s legal troubles derailed their domestic tranquility. The monologues are delivered plainly, with the parents sitting comfortably in well-worn chairs and pausing only occasionally to respond to a ringing phone or a whistling kettle. Some of the anecdotes are tinged with bitterness; others are delivered with a wry chuckle.
As the evening progresses, the title takes on an ironic meaning as none of the parents seem to clearly recall sitting the kids down for a heart-to-heart chat. In the dizzying process of a marriage breakup, things don’t tend to happen according to a script. In the midst of all the uncertainty, though, the parents struggled to give their children some sense of continuity. From the looks of things, the kids turned out all right, even if some of their questions can never be fully answered.
You Better Sit Down; Written by Anne Kauffman, Matthew Maher, Caitlin Miller, Jennifer R. Morris; Janice Paran, and Robbie Collier Sublett; Additional Contributions: David Barlow; Directed by Anne Kauffman; Flea Theater; 41 White Street; New York, NY 10013; 212-226-2407; www.theflea.org