There’s something about Jewish patriarchs in literature: eccentricity, a toughness of mind, a crazed, unreasonable stubbornness. Consider the father in Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, Dr. Adler in Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day, the grandfather — as admirable as he is monstrous — in Michael Chabon’s Moonglow. I know all about this character. My stepfather, Edward Erdelyi, was a brilliant engineer, a short, excitable Hungarian who survived imprisonment by the Nazis and managed to bring a hundred other people to safety with him when he escaped Europe. He was strong-minded, difficult, loud and demanding. He routinely filled our spare room with dozens of rolls of toilet paper, folded shirts and packages of socks — any items he’d found on sale. He embarrassed eminent colleagues with his love of childish puns, and his rigid dietary and lifestyle requirements drove my mother crazy.
Now meet Oscar, the elderly father at the heart of Meridith Friedman’s The Luckiest People, receiving its world premiere at Curious Theatre Company. Oscar, whose beloved wife, Dorothy, has recently died, is in an assisted-living facility, resolutely refusing to engage in any activities and making endless demands on his middle-aged son, Richard. The demand that surfaces last and shocks Richard most is Oscar’s insistence that he’ll soon be moving into the apartment Richard shares with his good-natured lover, David. Richard and David are in the process of adopting a six-year-old boy, and they have no idea how they’ll be able to accommodate this querulous, elderly second child.
Richard’s sister, Laura, lives with her Chinese husband in Shanghai and is visiting California only now that their mother’s funeral is safely over. You can see Oscar’s harmful influence in Richard’s problems communicating with David, as well as in Laura’s ambivalence toward her husband and child, a little boy she both loves and resents.
Randy Moore appears on stage far too rarely these days, and it’s a pleasure to experience his Oscar — a fierce, infuriating, unself-aware and often unintentionally hilarious old fart, yet still deeply human. Erik Sandvold is perfect as Richard, struggling with his feelings, alternately caring and withholding; John Jurcheck is a warmly appealing David. Karen Slack’s Laura brings a lot of humor to the evening, and her descriptions of family life are so rueful, funny and quizzical that you forgive her hard-heartedness toward her child.
Chip Walton, who directs, is dedicated to bringing work by promising young playwrights to light. Friedman, whose The Firestorm was put on by Local Theater Company in Boulder last year, completed a yearlong National New Play Network residence at Curious in 2010; in 2014, she and Walton received a commission for The Luckiest People from NNPN. Curious will mount two more of her plays, both dealing with what Walton calls the “Sahara of middle age,” in upcoming seasons.
The Luckiest People focuses more on relationships than action. Though there are a couple of furious blow-ups that erupt almost without warning, most of the evening is filled with apparently mundane talk of sitting shiva, how to conduct a minyan, what kind of bagels everyone wants, how Oscar would navigate the stairs at Richard and David’s place. Occasionally there’s a wonderfully surprising moment, as when Oscar and Richard start singing a number from one of the musicals that Oscar and Dorothy loved.
But although this is an essentially quiet play, it’s never boring. Beneath the surface lie depth charges primed to explode later in your mind. Friedman is dealing with questions about life and death, the ways we find to live with each, and the profound nature of love itself. Dorothy was as warm and open as Oscar is closed and crabbed, but Laura rejects her mother’s example. She sees her as having loved and sacrificed so deeply and endlessly that it dissipated her very soul. Oscar, always the selfish member of the couple, is only now beginning to understand the terrible loss he’s suffered and to come to terms with his own mortality. Yet all the characters in this witty, intelligent and frequently very funny play are trying to live loving, connected lives — even if they themselves don’t quite know it yet.
The Luckiest People, presented by Curious Theatre Company through June 17, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.