12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Musical
Local Arts Reviews
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Aug. 20, 2004
12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Musical
The Vortex, through Aug. 29
Running time: 1 hr, 15 min
All the other Smiths have had their song, so the time has come for a solo from Matt, the family's cynical, rebellious teen in Rob Nash's 12 Steps to a More Dysfunctional Family series. Although Matt has spent most of this installment deriding the spiritual leanings of his relations and getting into fights at school, his musical moment rises from tender feelings toward a 4-year-old, a child by his late father and a woman not Matt's mom. Matt wants a better life for his half brother than the troubled, disaffected one he lives, so he offers the boy in song an acknowledgment of his own mistakes and such wisdom as he's gained from them. Titled "Little Brotha Doncha Do What Yo Big Brotha Done," the number is a rap laced with enough effing f-words to make David Mamet blush. Not exactly Rodgers & Hammerstein, but then these are hardly the von Trapps.
No, the Smiths are the model of a modern American clan: agitated, alienated, at odds with one another, and afflicted with more problems than Houston has traffic jams. Of course, as the title indicates, emotional hang-ups and conflicts are the Smiths' stock-in-trade. They're the only constants in this family, the things that make them who they are, and maybe the only glue still holding them together as a family. If it isn't Matt's belligerence, it's his sister Ashley's bulimia or Uncle Fred's AIDS or Aunt Windsong's addiction to self-help programs. In this fourth chapter in the Smith saga, Windsong has converted to Islam, Fred has taken up drinking, Matt and Ashley's mother, Margot, is popping sleeping pills, and Grandma Mildred is seeing ghosts make that a ghost: the shade of her not-so-dear departed hubby, Harvey.
Nash breezes through all this in his usual way, 20 mph above the speed limit. Generally, such swift pacing is a good thing, but here it sometimes feels like he's racing ahead of the audience. Nash seems to presume our familiarity with the series' previous installments, introducing characters with little exposition and tossing off references to past incidents with next to no elaboration. Not having seen the first chapter in 10 years or the second and third chapters ever, I sometimes found myself scrambling to piece together relationships and histories. And Nash is equally brisk with his various subplots, setting them up and dispatching them with utmost efficiency. Harvey's ghost has hardly materialized and sung his song with Mildred a country swing charmer by Johnny Edson and Nash, "If I Could Do It All Over" before he's announcing he's leaving.
Still, as uncharacteristically compressed as this outing is, Nash makes it characteristically entertaining. His skill at shifting among multiple characters is as impressive and delightful as ever, with his smoothly slipping from personality to personality with the mere slump of a shoulder or droop of a brow, a nasal drone here or a lisp there. And he once again pushes the comic envelope of a solo actor depicting the activities of a couple, showing us both sides in a waltz and, more uproariously, both partners French-kissing (!). The songs give Nash new ways to play with his established characters, and with his composers Edson, Chad Salvata, and Edmund Pantuliano providing a range of melodic moods and colors, from the aforementioned rap and country swing to brooding ballads and Middle Eastern pop, Nash is able to give each family member a musical set-piece as distinctive as his or her voice.
Ultimately, however, the title notwithstanding, the show is not about musicals. It's about that 4-year-old to whom Matt directs his rap. He's the catalyst that finally gets every member of this self-absorbed family to stop gazing in the mirror, to stop worrying about herself or himself and start thinking about someone else. With his introduction, Nash gives the Smiths something new to bind the family, someone to look out for, a future, hope. Now, that truly gives them something to sing about.