'Making God Laugh' Follows a Family Over Four Decades

Making God Laugh Rick (Kevin Kirby) primps before a family portrait on Thanksgiving Day, 1980.

If family creates the ties that bind, the characters in Sean Grennan's Making God Laugh have some extra glue to make their bonds stick: Fantasia Dip.

Whatever this gloppy baked concoction is, it's also something far more intangible: a family tradition. Mom Ruthie (Beverley Griffith) clings to the idea of perpetuating a cherished tradition, even as her husband Bill (Steve Lambert) and adult children devise ways to avoid eating the mess.

Unluckily for them, Fantasia Dip is always on the menu in Making God Laugh, as the comedy/drama follows one family over the course of four decades, checking in with them at holidays and other family gatherings. Tabard Theatre Company is presenting Making God Laugh through Oct. 13 at Theatre on San Pedro Square.

We meet the family on Thanksgiving Day, 1980, as empty-nesters Ruthie and Bill ready dinner for their trio of 20-something children. Mulleted and decked out in leopard print, big talker Rick (Kevin Kirby) drives up in what proves to be the first of many lemons he'll boast is the next big thing. Next comes Maddie (Alexandra Bogorad), an aspiring actress, who like her brother, has embraced the fashionably big hair of '80s.

In a sign of things to come, while Rick's garish get-up draws some tsk-tsking from Ruthie, mom's criticism is swift and relentless when she spies Maddie's all-over lace outfit.

Tom (Ray D'Ambrosio), who's training for the priesthood, arrives last amid slightly too-truthful jokes that he's "the good son." It's true: Ruthie, a devout Catholic, can't quite conceal her favoritism for "Father Tom." But under the considerable pressure of his mom's pride, the laid-back, kindly Tom puts the family at ease with self-effacing humor.

When at last, the family is all together, the genial atmosphere starts to unravel perfectly. Through simple, seemingly innocent family conversation, here sneaks up the reminder that there's a reason the holidays have a reputation for magnifying hard feelings.

Director Doug Baird maintains just the right undercurrent of tension in these scenes, as Ruthie, Maddie and Rick struggle—and fail—to keep their grievances to themselves, while Bill and Tom carefully try to defuse things.

And so too it goes on Christmas Day, 1990. As Tom continues to earn Ruthie's praise, Maddie remains Ruthie's target, though increasingly, Rick isn't exempt from Ruthie's disapproval. But the play offers more than watching a family squabble—Tabard's cast plays these characters with real affection for them, which makes easy for the audience to feel invested in the whole family.

In some ways, the trouble between mother and daughter seems an inevitable generational disconnect, and Griffith and Bogorad convincingly portray loving adversaries. Even as Ruthie, who fancies herself a paragon of domesticity, badgers Maddie to follow her example, there's a subtle bitterness in the passive-aggressive comments she passes off as helpful feedback.

Griffith skillfully offers glimpses of Ruthie's sympathetic side as she evolves from a somewhat comic figure to a character with a tragic element.

Baird makes good use of slideshows for transitions between scenes, which each jump a decade, and require some shifting of decorations on Migi Oey's cozy, timeless set. Pictures of some of the TV shows, plays and electronics that shaped each decade establish the scene and sometimes offer additional laughs.

The weakest part of the play comes at the beginning of the third act—New Year's Eve, 1999, which riffs on Y2K paranoia, with Rick having bought into a survivalist mentality. The scene strives for absurd comedy, but its broad, over-the-top tone doesn't fit with the striking realism of the rest of the play. Fortunately, writer Grennan drops the joke as quickly as it turns midnight and the act quickly regains its equilibrium.

In fact, like the collective family memory, which, over time seems to exaggerate the embarrassing terribleness of say, one's ludicrous get-rich quick scheme or past taste in fashion, Making God Laugh pokes fun at a lot of cringe-worthy goods from the '80s and '90s. Recalling teased-up, oversprayed hair or brick-sized cellphones does offer a lot of laughs, though sometimes the nostalgia gets a little overplayed.

Of course, the relic that outlasts all is Ruthie's Fantasia Dip, and as the play's last act nears the present—set on a day in 2010—this much-reviled dish proves itself to be perhaps the best kind of family tradition: unique, enduring and something that brings the whole family together in one way or another. It's perfect in its imperfection, not unlike its champion and detractors themselves.

Making God Laugh

Theatre on San Pedro Square

Through Oct 13


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