GLOUCESTER — During one of several fierce verbal skirmishes that erupt among adult siblings in “The Last Schwartz,’’ 45-year-old Norma laments: “What’s happened to us? . . . Why aren’t we a real family?’’
The reply from her 40-year-old brother, Herb, is as immediate as it is blunt: “This is what a real family is, Norma.’’
A fair point, though by any standard the tensions are exceptionally high in the combative family reunion at the center of this dark comedy by Deborah Zoe Laufer, now receiving its New England premiere at Gloucester Stage Company under the direction of Paula Plum.
As the four Schwartzes (and one restive in-law) gather in upstate New York for a memorial ceremony on the one-year anniversary of their father’s death, old grievances erupt, a long-buried secret or two spills out, and family members clash over whether to sell the house where they grew up. The ties that bind can also strangle: It’s a premise that’s been explored countless times yet remains fertile thanks to its universality. Adding fuel to an already combustible situation at the Schwartz gathering is the unexpected presence of a flaky, seductive starlet from Los Angeles.
While delivering nods to Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard,’’ most directly in her play’s ending, Laufer thrashes out questions of Jewish-American identity, assimilation, memory (individual and collective), the heartache of unfulfilled expectations, and the double-edged power of home.
To that mix Laufer brings a freewheeling imagination and a distinctive comic voice, also on display in “Out of Sterno,’’ presented at Gloucester Stage last summer with Plum at the helm. Within the often-goofy trappings of “Sterno,’’ Laufer told a resonant story of an initially childlike young woman who manages to wrest herself free from domestic subjugation and her own low expectations by venturing out into the world.
“The Last Schwartz’’ does not flow as seamlessly as “Sterno.’’ At times the conflicts feel less organic than schematic, marked by the nearly audible clank of a playwright fitting the pieces together. The fit is especially awkward when it comes to one Schwartz sibling: 35-year-old Simon, an eccentric astronomer who is losing his sight and spends much of the play gazing through a telescope. Even portrayed by the always-inventive Paul Melendy, Simon doesn’t quite work as a character. He’s too obviously there to make us ponder the puniness of human fretting and sweating when compared to the sweep of time and the vastness of the cosmos.
Yet “The Last Schwartz’’ finds ways to cut deep, and you can’t help but admire the audacity and speed of the playwright’s U-turns from whimsy to utter seriousness and back again.
In the Schwartz family, Norma is the dogmatic upholder of tradition, her self-righteousness edged with loneliness in Veronica Anastasio Wiseman’s perceptive performance. Herb (Gabriel Kuttner, excellent) is so bored with his family that he can’t even be bothered to look up from his Wall Street Journal — until, that is, 20-year-old Kia enters the picture in a skin-tight dress and sky-high heels.
The disruptive outside force who sets the play’s events in motion, Kia is the bombshell girlfriend of Gene (Glen Moore), a director of TV commercials and, at 30, the youngest in the Schwartz family. As Kia, Andrea Goldman is quite funny — her Kia is a sexpot stoner who discombobulates each of the Schwartz men in different ways — though one wishes playwright Laufer had drawn the character as less of a cartoon ditz.
The figure in this charged group portrait who makes the strongest claim on your attention and your empathy is Bonnie, Herb’s wife, who lights up when Gene arrives. In Brianne Beatrice’s superb portrayal, Bonnie begins as a somewhat ludicrous figure, delivering an extended monologue about an episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show’’ featuring a pair of conjoined twins that she manages to make all about her.
But it is Bonnie, with her poignant need to belong, who ultimately delivers the play’s cargo of heartache, and it is she who embodies both the insistent presence of the past and the need — not just for her, but for the Schwartzes — to move beyond it.
THE LAST SCHWARTZ
Play by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Paula Plum. Presented by Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester, through July 30. Tickets: $28-$38, 978-281-4433, www.gloucesterstage.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.