Small Stakes for Big Sky
By Patrick Hurley
Returning to our primal nature, where instinct trumps human drama, takes on extreme white privilege in Big Sky, written by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros, playing now at the Geffen Playhouse.
At a five-star Aspen Condo, Jack (Jon Tenney) is on the cusp of making a life boosting career change. Awaiting word from his potential future employer, he and his wife Jen (Jennifer Westfeldt) their daughter Tessa (Emily Robinson), and family friend Jonathon (Arnie Burton) are holed up in a gorgeous ski lodge in Aspen, one of the richest cities in the world. But all is not as “perfect” as it would seem. Jen is in love with another man, Tessa steals a bag of weed and crashes the car of her dad’s potential future boss with said boss’s daughter inside, Jonathon is trying to get over the death of his husband of seventeen years, and Jack and Jen are facing the end of their marriage. Seems like some hefty problems, right? But wait, there’s more!
The stakes are somewhat raised when the truth about Jack’s financial situation comes out in Act Two. Then, there is an unexpected blizzard that hits, because nothing adds dramatic tension like trapping all of your characters in a situation they can’t escape from. Plus, Jen forgot to go to the store for food. Then a sudden blackout leaves them without heat. The foursome, who are literally walking distance to a Ritz Carlton, must face, mortality, I guess, and their blazing contempt for one another, in order to survive the night with each other. Unfortunately, it’s all just not enough. There’s not enough danger, or even conflict to raise the stakes to where they need to be. Because we don’t invest in these people. We don’t really relate to them. We’re essentially watching spoiled, privileged people try to work through their first world problems.
Playwright Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros delivers some punchy, humorous dialogue, which really only works to gloss over the lack of dramatic action. She paces herself too slowly. Most of the scenes in the first act take too long to get to their moments, to the reason for the scene. And then Act Two in comparison feels explosive and melodramatic because it’s more interesting to watch. However, slightly unearned.
It looks amazing. Scenic Designer Derek McLane creates a beautiful Aspen condo, complete with large wooden beams and high glass windows that look out over the majesty of the snow-capped Colorado mountains. Director John Rando is a skillful enough director to never allow dishonesty to permeate the performances, though actors are too often on the same plane as one another, standing or sitting side by side, or face to face, and that feels flat at times.
All of the performances feel honest and genuine. Particularly Arnie Burton as Jonathon, the only character with enough genuine baggage to be dramatically compelling. Mr. Burton plays him with an underlying pain that makes him the easiest character to empathize with and actually root for. Emily Robinson is perfectly millennial as Tessa, a teenager in love with a Native-American man who is too old for her and seems to be filling her head with parables and guilt. Jon Tenney and Jennifer Westfeldt, as Jack and Jen are both solid performers who find enough humanity in their roles to make them interesting and watchable.
All in all, this production has its merits. It deals with some fundamentally universal issues of love, fidelity, and survival. It just never quite digs its claws in and becomes something primal. Which feels like a missed opportunity.
The World Premiere of
Written by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros
Directed by John Rando
June 15-July 17
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles, CA 90024
Available in person at the Box Office