LENOX — Few things are more frustrating than watching a playwright sabotage his own work.
In the initially promising “Parasite Drag,’’ Mark Roberts can’t resist the temptation to pile on one lurid revelation after another, the more graphic the better, until his play eventually collapses under the sheer weight of authorial excess.
Now receiving its East Coast premiere at Shakespeare & Company under the direction of Stephen Rothman, “Parasite Drag’’ revolves around two estranged brothers, their wives, their (unseen) dying sister, a dark family secret, and the lifelong consequences of that secret.
This dysfunctional clan makes the House of Atreus look like the Waltons, but when it comes time to illuminate the family’s implosion in a big showdown scene between the two brothers, Roberts opts, alas, to follow a much-trod path. You’re less likely to gasp as the back story spills out than to roll your eyes and say to yourself: “Really? That plot device again?’’
The descent into pulpy predictability is a pity, because there are moments when “Parasite Drag’’ pulls us in with its scorpions-in-a-bottle psychological warfare and a blasted emotional landscape that evokes the work of Sam Shepard.
But Roberts insists on throwing everything, and I mean everything, into the pot. His play ends up as a catalog of social pathologies, less Shepard than one of those “Moment of Truth’’ movies on the Lifetime channel, albeit with much rougher language and naughtier bits.
The playwright knows from television: He created the CBS sitcom “Mike & Molly,’’ and he worked on “Two and a Half Men’’ during the Charlie Sheen years (speaking of dysfunction). There are some decent laughs in “Parasite Drag,’’ most of them
at the expense of stiff, stolid,
uptight Gene (Josh Aaron McCabe).
As the play begins, Gene is nursing a black eye and a bloody nose. He was on the receiving end of a punch thrown by his wife, Joellen (Elizabeth Aspenlieder). His beat-up appearance poses a problem, given that Gene, a devout Christian, is just a couple days away from being ordained. (In this unhappy but carefully arranged home, designed by Patrick Brennan, a crucifix hangs over a doorway, not far from a painting of Jesus.) Joellen paces back and forth, intent on self-justification, claiming that she was just “air-punching’’ and Gene walked into the blow.
Apart from those internal tensions, it’s tornado weather in Tolono, Ill. “Black clouds in the distance,’’ Joellen says. “No telling which way they’re headed.’’ Roberts is not subtle. Sure enough, another kind of storm soon materializes in the form of Gene’s raffish brother Ronnie (Jason Asprey) and his young wife, Susie (Kate Abbruzzese).
The brothers have not seen each other in a long time, and it’s immediately apparent why: A corrosive animosity sizzles between them. Ronnie is as slovenly as Gene is fastidious, and he routinely drops F-bombs just to infuriate his prissy brother. Ronnie has returned to see their sister, Nadine, a longtime drug user who is nearing the end of her troubled life in a local hospital, apparently from AIDS.
Gene holds Ronnie partly responsible for Nadine’s relapse into drug use, which led to a downward spiral that ended in homelessness and worse. The level of grisly detail Gene goes into while recounting Nadine’s ordeal is an early sign of the playwright’s taste for gratuitous shock effects. “You practically put that needle in her arm. … You bring bad to everything you touch,’’ he tells Ronnie.
The interactions between their wives feel less schematic and more natural. There’s a sadness tugging at the features of Aspenlieder’s Joellen that suggests years of disappointment, while Abbruzzese’s gum-chewing Susie exudes a self-willed, let’s-get-on-with-it optimism. They have little in common except their quarreling husbands, but the two women forge an easy camaraderie while looking through old high school pictures at a breakfast table. (The atmosphere would not be so friendly, however, if one of them knew what the other did on that table the night before, and with whom.)
Soon enough, though, we’re propelled toward the melodramatic conclusion of “Parasite Drag.’’ All the family skeletons are ripped out of the closet. Recriminations are hurled. Tears are shed. Confessions fight their way to the surface. Screams rend the air. That tornado finally shows up, but the damage has already been done by the playwright himself.