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Stage review

A family’s center cannot hold in thin ‘Tell Me I’m Not Crazy’

Jane Kaczmarek, Mark Feuerstein, and Mark Blum in “Tell Me I’m Not Crazy.”
Jane Kaczmarek, Mark Feuerstein, and Mark Blum in “Tell Me I’m Not Crazy.”Jeremy Daniel

WILLIAMSTOWN — Some of the ideas behind Sharyn Rothstein’s “Tell Me I’m Not Crazy’’ are interesting. The execution is not.

Or at least not often enough, despite periodic flashes of insight in this play about a family that starts coming apart at the seams after the clan’s patriarch buys a gun and begins to adopt an unnervingly Trumpian worldview.

Too often we can sense Rothstein checking off boxes or pushing hot buttons in “Tell Me I’m Not Crazy,’’ shortchanging character development as the play transitions awkwardly from quippy, Neil Simon-ish comedy at the start to a decidedly darker vein of social-issues-crash-into-the-homefront domestic drama. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, it’s now receiving its world premiere at Williamstown Theatre Festival, starring the wondrous Jane Kaczmarek along with Mark Blum, Nicole Villamil, and Mark Feuerstein.

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“Crazy’’ seeks to — and in fairness sometimes does — make us feel for the older and younger couples at its center as they struggle to cope with, for instance, the fear of obsolescence that can come with aging, or the Gordian knot of conflicts between the imperatives of career and parenthood. All four are, to one degree or another, disconcerted by the gulf between expectations and actuality that is, let’s face it, both the bane and the basic condition of human existence.

But the play’s treatment of these and other issues tends toward the facile and clichéd, built around a series of high-volume showdowns that quickly grow repetitive and diminish the overall impact of the sharp one-liners or poignant revelations that do surface in “Crazy.’’

It is 62-year-old Sol (Blum), a former HR manager newly forced into retirement and alarmed by recent home invasions in the neighborhood, who plunges two households into crisis when he arms himself with a gun and starts spending much of his time at a firing range. One of those households is his own, shared with wife Diana (Kaczmarek), a middle-school math teacher on the cusp of her 60th birthday and nurturing dreams of a bicycle trip in Italy but aghast at the change in Sol, who has begun railing against undocumented immigrants. Contending that their neighborhood has been made less safe by “these people coming in illegally, with nothing,’’ Sol declares: “I’m taking my goddamn neighborhood back.’’ (His reflexive assumptions about the identity of the “hooligans’’ who perpetrated the break-ins will prove to rest on shaky ground.)

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The other household convulsed by Sol’s new enthusiasm for weapons and vigilantism is that of their son Nate (Feuerstein), a stay-at-home dad whose attempts at a photography career have stalled, intensifying his resentment toward his wife, Alisa (Villamil), who is successfully climbing the corporate ladder. Her job as an advertising account manager increasingly keeps Alisa away from home and their two young children, one of whom is demonstrating severe behavioral problems at his preschool. Guilt and ambition vie within Alisa, along with horror at her father-in-law’s newly expressed views of immigrants. (It is suggested that she is of Latino descent.)

As this summary perhaps suggests, “Crazy’’ tries to cover too much ground, making the play feel both overstuffed and thin. Especially problematic are the scenes with Nate and Alisa, which quickly grow tedious; while Villamil deftly communicates Alisa’s ambivalence, there’s a one-note quality to Nate’s harangues that even a fine actor like Feuerstein cannot transcend.

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It is the older couple who more frequently reward our attention. To her credit, playwright Rothstein has endowed Sol with a bit more dimension than that of a garden-variety bigot, and Blum mostly refrains from caricature, taking steps to capture Sol’s humanity. Blum conveys the degree to which Sol’s reactionary, MAGA-style views are an expression of deeper feelings of helplessness, of losing control, after being pushed out of his job.

And Kaczmarek? This is her third appearance at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in recent years, following her shattering, unforgettable 2016 portrayal of a terminally ill woman in Tom Holloway’s “And No More Shall We Part,’’ with Alfred Molina, and her 2017 performance as a swaggering, leather-jacketed lesbian slam poet from the Bronx transplanted to Iowa in Jen Silverman’s “The Roommate,’’ with S. Epatha Merkerson.

Diana, in “Crazy,’’ is the least developed of those three roles, but it scarcely matters with an actress of Kaczmarek’s virtuosity. She traverses a wide emotional range, going big one moment, small the next, creating a portrait of a woman who is shaken by the upheaval in her world but is also thoroughly equipped to restore order to it. Here’s hoping the festival already has another part lined up for Kaczmarek.

TELL ME I’M NOT CRAZY

Play by Sharyn Rothstein. Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel. Presented by Williamstown Theatre Festival. At Nikos Stage, ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance, Williamstown, through Aug. 3. Tickets $60, 413-458-3253, www.wtfestival.org


Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin

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