STOCKBRIDGE — Erik Tarloff was a writer for some of the best television comedies of all time: “All in the Family,’’ “M*A*S*H,’’ “The Bob Newhart Show.’’
For good and ill, Tarloff’s sitcom background is apparent in “Cedars,’’ his one-act solo play about middle-age malaise, now making its world premiere at Berkshire Theatre Group.
Starring James Naughton and ably directed by his daughter, Keira Naughton, “Cedars’’ bristles with punchy one-liners. The playwright has a knack for vividly expressive, out-of-left-field imagery, such as this, on the nonstop demands of marriage: “It’s a working farm, not a petting zoo.’’
Sometimes, though, Tarloff sacrifices emotional resonance for the sake of a wisecrack. There is sharp and insightful writing about the fragility of human relationships in “Cedars,’’ and some trenchantly affecting scenes, but overall the play doesn’t cut as deeply as it should. The playwright seems too keenly aware of his audience, too eager to keep them from, as it were, changing the channel.
The setup is a promising one. Naughton, a double Tony Award winner for “Chicago’’ and “City of Angels,’’ portrays Gabe, an attorney in his 50s whose personal and professional life is in a shambles. Now Gabe is trying to figure out where, when, and how things went wrong as he engages in a unilateral conversation with his comatose father in Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles. The 90-minute monologue unfolds in a series of five scenes, punctuated by blackouts.
Though there were a few ragged edges to Naughton’s performance on opening night, the actor does a skillful job communicating the wounded interior beneath Gabe’s profane, hard-bitten exterior. Often wearing an angry frown and slicing the air with his hands, Naughton brings a gritty authenticity to even the hollowest scenes.
Gabe’s dad is never seen, but the son’s description makes it clear that he was never a candidate for Father of the Year. To Tarloff’s credit, Gabe’s own moral failings are pretty apparent. “A lot of my life is devoted to not looking like a creep,’’ he says. “Notice I didn’t say not being a creep.’’ Yet Naughton conveys the sense that Gabe wants to be better than he is.
“Cedars’’ takes us on a guided tour of Gabe’s messed-up family — which includes a mother who’s losing the few marbles she ever had and a train wreck of a sister who has followed her married boyfriend to Delaware — and his midlife misadventures, including a semi-disastrous foray into Internet dating. Gabe’s legal career, too, is faltering, in a milieu teeming with young hotshots.
Given the intimacy of the circumstances — a son spilling his guts about his failures and disappointments to his vegetative father lying a few feet away — Gabe’s monologue is curiously formal, even orotund, peppered as it is with words like “denatured’’ and “modality.’’ It’s as if the attorney is making a courtroom defense argument, which I suppose in a sense he is. At other times, Gabe’s disquisition has the feel of one of the comedian Louis C.K.’s R-rated, hard-truths-wrapped-in-humor monologues.
If only “Cedars’’ steered farther afield of cliché and predictable subject matter. For instance: Gabe is separated from his wife, and the wife’s new boyfriend is French, apparently so Gabe can crack wise about his name and all things French. It’s funny the first time, less so the second, third, and fourth times. The lawyer has trouble connecting with his teenage son, who he seems to believe is gay. What’s the tipoff? The kid listens to Lady Gaga. And so on.
When it comes to Gabe’s own sex life, the playwright doesn’t stint on details, especially when the lawyer recounts his date with an overweight woman he met online. The time devoted to his description of their sad sexual encounter would have been better spent delving more deeply into the history of the father-son dynamic between Gabe and the invisible man in the hospital bed to whom he’s trying to explain himself — especially since it’s evident that many of the son’s demons can be laid at the door of not-so-dear old dad.