Putting aside for a moment its more usual fare of zany comedies and musicals, Off-Broadstreet Theatre is challenging its audience with a pessimistic drama. “Twilight of the Golds” might best be characterized as a dark comedy about genetic engineering. Written by Jonathan Tolins, the play first appeared in the early 1990s when the AIDS epidemic was taking a terrible toll on New York City’s gay population. The Broadway production was savaged by the New York Times critic, resulting in a short run. But the play went on to a better life in other theaters and was also made into a film.
The story involves David Gold, a young man who is a novice set designer in the opera world; his sister, Suzanne; her genetic- scientist husband, Rob; and David and Suzanne’s parents, Phyllis and Walter Gold. David is preoccupied with Wagner and claims credit for the play’s witty title: for him the history of his family resembles that of the characters in Wagner’s Ring cycle, particularly those in the last of the four operas, “The Twilight of the Gods,” in which the gods lose their power and the world as it had been known came to an end.
Mrs. Gold comes across as almost a caricature of the Jewish mother. She would have liked her daughter to be a doctor, but for various reasons Suzanne has ended up in a managerial position in the retail world of women’s clothing. The mother hovers over her children, but always backs away and apologizes when she annoys them.
The plot centers on the moral dilemmas brought about by prenatal genetic testing. (Although such testing is central to the play, in the real world it is only just beginning to be ready to be used. The play was written before the current theories about how such testing might best be done were developed, and scientists are apparently impressed by how close to the mark Tolins came.) What should parents do if they discover something about their future baby they do not want to live with? In the play Suzanne struggles with the distinct possibility that her unborn child will be gay.
According to program notes what captured director Bob Thick’s imagination about “The Twilight of the Gods” was not just the “dicey questions” raised in the play, but the fact that “we are gaining knowledge in this so-called modern era that stretches our capacity as human beings to act both intelligently and humanely. Are we equipped to handle it?” Thick trimmed many of the operatic references to make the play more generally accessible, leaving in the Ring Cycle comparisons because they offered “great insight into David’s character and his passion for art and life” (and playing excerpts from Wagner as the show opens).
The play has an unusual structure. Each character has at least one monologue, and the monologues alternate with interactions between the characters.
David is passionately acted by Joe Sabatino, a recent graduate of Rider College who is making his first appearance with Off-Broadstreet. His sister, Suzanne, is played by Casey Williams-Ficarra, Frankenstein’s bride in Off-Broadstreet’s 2006 production. Her restrained demeanor makes an interesting contrast to David’s intensity. Their mother is played by Lois Carr, who has both acted and directed at Off-Broadstreet and, incidentally, works at Cooper Cancer Institute; she was most recently seen in this winter’s Off- Broadstreet production of “Relatively Speaking.” Suzanne’s husband is played by Steve Lobis, who was also seen in “Frankenstein” (as a scientist) and, more recently, in “Run for Your Wife.” Alan Kitty takes on the role of David and Suzanne’s father; he is a newcomer to Off-Broadstreet but has a rich background as both an actor and a writer. He has been doing a solo Mark Twain program for many years and has acted in films and on television (including “Law and Order”) as well as on stage.
“The Twilight of the Golds” was first published in 1992, some four years after Tolins graduated from Harvard. It was followed by “If Memory Serves,” first produced in 1998, and “The Last Sunday in June” (originally called “Another Gay Play”), first produced in 2003. His latest play, “Secrets of the Trade,” had its first performance this spring. Tolins was also involved in writing and producing a film version of “The Twilight of the Golds.”
For “The Twilight of the Golds” Thick has again both directed and designed the set (Suzanne and Rob’s apartment for all but one scene). As is almost always the case at Off-Broadstreet, Thick’s direction makes it easy for the audience to follow the logic of the play. The costumes are designed by Julie Thick, and again, as is almost always the case, they fit with the play without drawing attention to themselves.
The issues “The Twilight of the Golds” stirs up about our approaching ability to influence the genetic makeup of our descendants are something we need to start thinking about seriously, and sooner rather than later.
The Twilight of the Golds, through Saturday, July 5. Off-Broadstreet Theater, 5 South Greenwood Avenue, Hopewell, Drama. $27.50 to $29.50. 609-466-2766.