There are so many plays about dysfunctional families that a new one had better work hard to distinguish itself. Barbara Dana's wobbly "War in Paramus" attempts to do so via a Vietnam War tie-in that eventually falls flat.
Thelma is a 15-year-old defiant misfit living in Paramus, N.J., in 1970. She resents her older sister, Jennifer, for being so perfect. Meanwhile, Jennifer is beginning to have doubts about her engagement to the well-dressed, polite Kevin. Their mother is proud of Jennifer but fed up with Thelma, and exerts firm control over her husband, a hapless paper-box designer. The story centers on one night when Thelma's rebelliousness leads to chaos and violence.
Some of the characters are all-too-familiar types. Thelma (Anne Letscher) has all the signs of an insolent child who just wants attention. She slumps in her chair. She skips school. She listens to rock music at high volume. She hangs out with long-haired guys, one of whom wears a leather jacket and carries a knife. Her mother is a perfect housewife who spends her time picking out wedding invitations and paint colors.
By contrast, the father, played by Matthew Arkin, is more sloppily drawn: anxious and jittery, with an inability to express himself that becomes frustrating to watch. He spends most of the play stumbling around, confused, yet his confusion is too imprecise to be believable. At first he's sympathetic to Thelma, but later, when she enters the house with dirt on her face, holding herself in agony, he barely bats an eye. At times he seems to border on some kind of psychological disorder, yet nobody acknowledges one.
Director Austin Pendleton fails to clarify the father character, and is careless in other areas as well. In one madcap central scene, characters spar with each other in predictable ways, and the action escalates way too quickly toward its expected violent conclusion. A bag of pretzels gets kicked around the floor, leaving pretzel shavings on the carpet for the rest of the play, even after weeks have passed.
Dana, a children's novelist writing her first play, relies too heavily on blunt, tired symbolism. The dad, the play's resident nostalgist, has a plodding conversation with Kevin about how the paper-box industry is being hurt by the development of plastic boxes. Yes, the old-fashioned is often replaced by the new-fangled. Are we learning anything enlightening here?
Then there are, of course, the references to the Vietnam War. We're led to believe that Vietnam parallels the ideological war within the family: old-fashioned values and gender roles vs. counterculture and feminism. But the references to Vietnam aren't integral, they're just thrown in. A character will casually turn on a radio news program and then turn it off again, or someone will mention the draft, or the dad will pick up a newspaper and say, "That war, boy, oh, boy." Therefore, the connection between war and family life sheds no new light on either one of them.
But the play's bigger problem is that its portrayal of the family is lacking in new insights. Though every dysfunctional family may be different, "War in Paramus" demonstrates that some are not different enough to merit attention.
WAR IN PARAMUS. Directed by Austin Pendleton. Abingdon Theatre, 312 W. 36th St., Manhattan. Tickets $35. Call 212-868-4444 or visit www.smarttix.com.