There’s nothing particularly novel about telling a story in reverse chronological order. Harold Pinter did it (Betrayal). “Seinfeld” did it (“The Betrayal” episode). That playwright Lindsey Ferrentino (Ugly Lies the Bone) does it in her new play The Year to Come should not be the attraction of this world-premiere at La Jolla Playhouse. What should be is how Ferrentino paints a portrait of a family that’s fractured by its differences yet somehow still faithful enough to each other to gather every New Year’s Eve.
The Year to Come, directed by Anne Kauffman, is not as funny as it tries to be in some places (mostly in Act One), nor as moving as it hopes to be in others (mostly in Act Two). Yet it’s strangely absorbing to watch its characters move uneasily back in time (the play starts in 2018 and returns, scene by scene, all the way to 2000), accruing all the scars and life lessons that will explain their dysfunction at the play’s outset. Everyone’s got issues, some obvious from early in The Year to Come, others revealed in the past, even well in the past. Ferrentino has crafted that fate-filled past to explain who these people will become: an argument-prone family that reunites on the last day of each year on Frank’s (Jonathan Nichols) and Estelle’s (Jane Kaczmarek) well-appointed Florida patio, complete with pool (yes, there’s one on stage).
Some of the interpersonal conflicts seem easy and contrived: Frank’s a macho right-winger of Cuban heritage; Estelle is Jewish; son Jim (Adam Chanler-Berat) is gay, and his lover-then-husband Sinan (Pomme Koch) is a Muslim; Aunt Pam (Marcia DeBonis) has ovarian cancer; she’s married to an African-American ex-standup comic (Ray Anthony Thomas). Etcetera etcetera. But again, when the years roll back, the tensions and miscommunications residing in them provide perspective. If only it was that easy for the rest of us.
The Year to Come features some exceptional performances. In addition to Kaczmarek’s loving and vulnerable Estelle, Peter Van Wagner as family patriarch Pop-Pop basks in two audience-pleasing sequences – the first in a monologue urging his brood to quit complaining and enjoy life; and the second when he plays guitar and rocks out to “Viva Las Vegas.”
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 12/12/18.)
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.