Entertainment

This unconventional ‘Famalee’ has a lot of problems

Clayton Bury, left, William Strelinger, Joe E. Alway-Baker and Donna Weinsting in "Famalee."
Clayton Bury, left, William Strelinger, Joe E. Alway-Baker and Donna Weinsting in "Famalee."

The original play "Famalee" depicts an unconventional family — only it's not very original.

The well-intentioned effort about a same-sex couple's struggles is written and produced by Joe E. Alway-Baker and St. Louis native Bart Baker, based on their experiences.

The Three 5 Productions drama suffers from the same pitfalls endemic to first-time playwrights and screenwriters — cramming too many story threads into one piece, an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach that bogs down the narrative while bringing their earnest issues to the forefront.

But these aren't novices — they have a long list of credits in their program bios. "Famalee" was previously titled "My Partner's Mother" as a movie version with Lee Meriwether announced in 2014, but the STL Auditions website advertised it this year as a stage play in St. Louis first and then Los Angeles.

The pair moved here several ago after a couple decades in L.A.

Perhaps being too close to the subject, and in Alway-Baker's case, starring in the show too, resulted in tunnel vision.

The critical and commercial success of Emmy-winning "Modern Family," which has followed a same-sex couple's baby adoption and marriage for eight seasons, is just one example that this topic has been covered with more wit and graceful insight before.

The Oscar-nominated "The Kids Are All Right" showed a gay couple's family to be a lot like a straight-couple's family in 2010.

So, lacking a fresh perspective, "Famalee" does not stand out, hindered by contrivances and overwrought melodrama.

The dialogue is rife with cliches, more akin to early soap operas like "The Edge of Night" and "Secret Storm."

The characters are underdeveloped and there are too many for the action to flow effectively. The staging is bulky and clumsy, with unfocused direction by Natasha Toro.

Peter Carter (Clayton Bury), a Jew, marries gentile Raul Medina (Alway-Baker), and they plan to live happily ever after with their adorable adopted son Chris (William Strelinger).

But tragedy strikes, and widower Raul has to put up with Peter's overbearing mother Emma (Donna Weinsting) and a custody battle from the Baby Daddy (Ford Fanter).

The derivative plot includes a climax similar to "Kramer vs. Kramer," while the introduction of Chris' conservative Christian father Luke mimics every "I Want My Kids' Back!" TV movie from the 1980s.

The clunky construction needed an edit, and trims could have taken place in a workshop with outside input.

Concentrating on the prickly relationship between Raul and the mother-in-law would have been sufficient, even though the meddling Jewish woman caricature is offensive.

The most outrageous stereotype is Raul's brother Luis, a Latino lover who lives with the guys. The embarrassing humor attempted about his over-active libido is straight out of 1970s sitcoms like "Three's Company."

The lines are not only insulting, but the inexperienced actor Richard Louis Ulrich is unconvincing.

The acting overall is a mixed bag. Clayton Bury, who has excelled before on stage and screen, is boxed into a corner as the groom-ghost.

We hear how much the couple is in love, but we never see why they are a perfect pair enough to care about them.

Baker, as Raul, is one-dimensional as well.

Mediocre dialogue aside, three veteran actresses bring their distinct energy and do what they can with their roles. Shannon Nara plays the sympathetic nanny, Paula Stoff Dean is Peter's compassionate sister and Weinsting is the homophobic thorn in everyone's side.

Fanter, a versatile actor with extensive local stage and screen credits, is better as Luke than the part demands — although he is saddled with quoting Bible passages in a diatribe against homosexuality. Yes, they go there.

As the defensive Baby Mama Jessica, Elaina Crighton delivers an emotional mad-at-the-world monologue, but her low-cut costume did her no favors, as her breast tattoo and cleavage distracted.

Young William Strelinger is a natural on stage, conveying the confusion and attachment issues inherent to children undergoing tragic changes.

John Reidy plays a single architect conveniently included in two celebrations, an awkward addition. Jeremy Thomas is Sandy's attorney husband Jackson, another unnecessary part.

Chuck Winning, Krystal Stevenson, Maritza Motto Gonzalez, Judi Jones and Maya Kelch fill the perfunctory roles of lawyers, judge, social worker, minister, process server and scantily clad girlfriend.

This topic might be specific to the 21st century, but the characters are drawn in such broad strokes, resembling a season's worth of after-school specials and very special episodes, that they don't seem contemporary or resonate.

Over-stuffed declarations of love and a plethora of sidebars attempt to tug at heartstrings. Some will be swayed by the sentimentality, but the entire exercise feels forced.

This smacks of a vanity project run amok, a self-indulgent, heavy-handed and repetitive hot mess.

Yearning for sexuality acceptance is a perfectly legitimate viewpoint. Love is love is love, and art about it should include something new, not something borrowed to make it feel old and us blue.

"Famalee"

Who: Three 5 Productions

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., and 6 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Ave., St. Louis

Information: www.three5prod.com

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