The ensemble cast of "cul-de-sac," via Zoom. Photo courtesy of Coronado Playhouse
NOTE: This "Stage West" theater review is by Ashley Na, associate critic in the San Diego Theater Critics Circle and a student at San Diego State University.
Coronado Playhouse’s “cul-de-sac” is quite the definition of “keeping up with the Joneses” and shows the various extents people will go to to achieve their idealized “American dream.” Presented in a virtual, Zoom platform, “cul-de-sac” allows us to see the dysfunctional, toxic and deteriorated lives of three suburban families: the Smiths, the Joneses and the Johnsons with a twist of dark humor and satire.
Written by John Cariani and directed by Sean Paul Boyd, the play is centered on the lives of the Joneses and the neighbors around them who envy their seemingly perfect lives starting with their cars, the painted walls of their house, their perfect green lawn. The Joneses are seen as a picture- perfect family by the Smiths and the Johnsons. Although these three families all have a happy public life, their private lives are far from it. They are all grieving for the death of their hope. The Joneses are filled with regret for their decisions to have children and decide to “downsize,” the Smiths are still recovering from the loss of their child and the Johnsons are finding solutions to their unhappy lives and marriage.
The characters (portrayed Ashley Graham, Hunter Brown, Alyssa Anne Austin, Bayani DeCastro Jr., Jena Joyce and Steven Jensen) constitute one big, endless circle of misery. Their lives are a great disparity between what they want others to perceive them as, and what their reality is. If this disparity continues, all of these characters would continue their miserable lives, in false hopes that someday, someone or something can truly make them happy.
“Cul-de-sac” is a dark satire, which mocks those who are materialistic and idolize the nonexistent American dream. There is a sense of awkwardness that makes us feel uncomfortable during certain dialogues exchanges by different characters. For instance, Austin’s character Diane Johnson, is more concerned with changing the color of her walls than being worried about her unconscious husband whom she tried getting rid of with a frying pan, for the sake of finding her own happiness. It makes us feel as if we are in a cul-de-sac, a dead end. Nothing new or exciting. Just the same old people and same old “uninteresting” events in life. Perhaps it is our own perception of how we live our lives that is supposed to change. Others' perception of how we live does not matter. Happiness is something that is earned by us, not given to us by other people.
The production features a diverse cast. However there are evident flaws and limitations throughout this production. Graham’s microphone blared to a point where static was audible whenever the actress spoke a little louder than normal. Brown’s screen wasn’t the best quality compared to the other actors and actresses. The screen background of some actors was not the most consistent-- although most with a clean white wall, Decastro Jr.’s panel interior divider was a minor distraction. Most importantly, there was a terrible lag and moments of cut dialogue due to the connectivity problems.
Despite these shortcomings on the technical side, “cul-de-sac” is a peculiar play which deals with highly possible, everyday scenarios for many modern-day families who even when seeking happiness may be regretting their choices as they envy the seemingly happy lives of their neighbors, close family friends and others around them.
-- Ashley Na
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.