Reviews

Munich Medea: Happy Family ***

By: Samuel L. Leiter

February 16, 2024: Like Corinne Jaber, whose first play this is, Alice, the heroine of Munich Medea: Happy Family (at the WP Theatre, coproduced with Playco),is a Syrian-German born in Munich and raised in Canada and Germany. As a girl, Alice (played by Iraqi-American Heather Raffo), whose father hitchhiked from Syria and whose mother came from East Germany, faced identity issues when other Germans had difficulties accepting her as one of them. Once, when her German-language abilities were questioned, she shot back with, “I was born in Germany and went to school here you fucking moron. I’ve probably read more Goethe than you ever will.” 

Heather Raffo

By: Samuel L. Leiter

February 16, 2024: Like Corinne Jaber, whose first play this is, Alice, the heroine of Munich Medea: Happy Family (at the WP Theatre, coproduced with Playco),is a Syrian-German born in Munich and raised in Canada and Germany. As a girl, Alice (played by Iraqi-American Heather Raffo), whose father hitchhiked from Syria and whose mother came from East Germany, faced identity issues when other Germans had difficulties accepting her as one of them. Once, when her German-language abilities were questioned, she shot back with, “I was born in Germany and went to school here you fucking moron. I’ve probably read more Goethe than you ever will.” 

 Crystal Finn and Heather Raffo.

Her outsider status, also marked by her darker skin (not particularly notable on Heather Raffo), appears to have contributed to her lack of resistance when seduced at 16 by Father (Kurt Rhoads), an otherwise unnamed, smooth-talking, distinguished actor (Kurt Rhoads), parent of her best friend, Caroline (Crystal Finn). At 11, both girls were noted for their precocity, Alice’s reflected in her rebelliousness, Caroline’s in her good grades, contrasting qualities embodied in their costumes by Dina El-Aziz. Caroline will herself ultimately be revealed as having become Father’s victim at 11. A twist, however, is the strong emotional connection that ties the actor to each of his underage lovers.

This, then, is the central issue: Father’s sexual assaults on Caroline and Alice, and their ultimately traumatic effect on all involved. The Medea angle is introduced through the lens of the self-dramatizing Father’s playing of the unfaithful Jason in the Greek tragedy of Medea, in which he betrays the eponymous heroine by marrying a young princess. Jason justifies this as being for everybody’s benefit, but his transgression drives Medea to punish him by killing their sons. In Munich Medea, set in Munich (which could be almost anywhere), however, Caroline’s mother, who never appears, looks the other way (as does Caroline after learning of her dad’s relations with Alice, although it causes the friendship to dissolve). 

 Crystal Finn

After the law eventually steps in, Father is removed from contact with his daughter and her children but never goes to jail. His specious rationale (“protection”) for his behavior, and the girls’ explorations of their own complicity, provide what few surprises the playwright has in store.

The themes of pederasty, rape, guilt, shame, consent, abortion, retribution, friendship, and the sardonically titular notion of a “happy family” are worked out not in conventional dialogue but, unhelpfully, in multiple monologues delivered directly to the audience by the three-member cast. At only one moment near the end do the two women, reuniting after many years, look directly at each other. This dramaturgic method, not original to Jaber (Brian Friel, for example, has done it twice), does little to inspire interest in the action.

Kurt Rhoads

Kristen Robinson’s essentially bare stage, moodily lit by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew, is on two levels. The upper half is split in two; on our left is Father’s walled office with a window through which we can barely see him; on our right is his theatre dressing room, where most of his speeches are delivered. The stage proper is little more than a black-walled space with minimal furnishings, including chairs, a standing lamp, and a sink. At center is a staircase leading to the upper floor, its open steps allowing Father to occasionally be seen performing upon them. The minimalist aesthetic, perhaps, owes something to Jaber’s having worked on several projects with the late Peter Brook.

Regardless of the sensitive subject matter, relatively familiar on stage and screen since Paula Vogel’s How I Learned to Drive, and a few mildly graphic details, the material, under Lee Sunday Evans’s generally flat direction, remains distant from us, told rather than shown. Humor is practically nonexistent. While the performances are sharp, they rarely throb with dramatic tension or project a hint of suspense, which is more likely attributable to the script and direction than the actors themselves. Most colorful is Kurt Rhoads, himself a long-serving classical actor with the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival, who captures with rhetorical flair the larger-than-life presence of the puffed-up thespian he plays, fond of quoting Schiller, Büchner, and the like. Still, Jaber’s monologues could almost be delivered from lecterns, in reader’s theatre style; even though the piece is, mercifully, only 75 minutes long, its overarching sense of ruefulness grows progressively tedious.

Nevertheless, Corinne Jaber’s writing is distinctive and intelligent enough to reveal that, had she chosen a less showy way to dramatize her story, Munich Medea: Happy Family might have had a more telling impact.

Munich Medea: Happy Family ***
WP Theatre
2162 Broadway
Through February 25, 2024
Photography: Julieta Cervantes

Crystal Finn and Heather Raffo on floor level; Kurt Rhoads above.
Heather Raffo