Jack Thorne recently gave a mea culpa interview to the New York Times in which he discussed how and why he went off the rails with his bloated book for the recently departed Broadway musical “King Kong.” The other major topics of the interview were his current Broadway hit, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” whose average ticket price has recently plunged into deep discounts (a topic not discussed in the Times), and his new play, “Sunday,” which opened Monday at Off Broadway’s Atlantic Theater Company.
Readers of the Times soon may be looking for another mea culpa from Thorne. “Sunday” is as small as “King Kong” was big but just as awful. The word awful is used here for both its current definition, meaning “bad,” and its original definition, meaning “filled with awe.” Indeed, “Sunday” is the kind of play that’s so bad it fills you with awe.
Thorne’s 100-minute drama begins inauspiciously with five post-college young adults gathering to discuss “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.” Anne Tyler’s novel was published slightly more than a decade before any of these people were born. Which is a bit odd but makes sense: They all went to college. Some of them are pursuing careers in book publishing. (Good luck there.) But when one of them, a lesbian named Alice (Ruby Frankel), delivers a long-memorized quote from W. Somerset Maugham, you may wonder if this play isn’t really set in 1982 — or 1952. The Playbill gives the time and place as “now” and “NYC,” respectively.
Even before she tell us, we know Alice is a lesbian because she wears a stocking cap (costumes by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene). Not mentioned but also evident is that Alice suffers from chronic logorrhea. She narrates the play, giving us the backstory on every character, including one whom she may never have met. He’s a 37-year-old guy named Bill (Maurice Jones) who lives downstairs and tells the discussion group’s host, Marie (Sadie Scott), not to play loud music because he needs his sleep. It is, after all, Sunday night. Bill is not invited to the discussion group, making him the luckiest person in the theater.
Alice’s many backstories are interspersed throughout the play, as are musical interludes wherein Marie and her friends play that loud music (by Daniel Kluger) and perform calisthenics and sometimes breakdance very amateurishly.
These music-action interludes are so abrupt and awkwardly staged by director Lee Sunday Evans that they rivet the attention in their depiction of twentysomething hormones gone wild. What never rivets the attention is the long discussion of the Tyler novel. If you have read “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” you’ll wonder how much student debt these characters have accumulated, because they clearly wasted any money spent on lit courses. If you haven’t read “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” you’ll definitely never read it after seeing “Sunday.”
Some of the problem here is that the characters drink a lot of vodka over the course of the evening. But unlike George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” their inebriation does not make them more scintillating. They tend to resemble Honey, who goes blotto by the end of the Edward Albee play. Perhaps that has something to do with Honey and Thorne’s characters being about the same age — and the fact that none of the actors here play very convincing drunks.
The topic of male toxicity is introduced by a character named Milo (Zane Pais), who proceeds to be very toxic with his girlfriend, Jill (Juliana Canfield) and his good friend Keith (Christian Strange), who happens to be black just as Milo happens to be white, male, tall, handsome, rich, privileged and extremely arrogant. He is so toxic that at the end of the play Alice tells us that he never experienced a “defining moment” in his entire life. Yes, Alice not only knows each character’s past, she also tells us each character’s future right down to the moment they died, sometime between 2039 and 2081. (I’m estimating here.)
Only Milo doesn’t get a defining moment, because he’s so toxic. Marie, meanwhile, has been the play’s wallflower. She’s terribly withdrawn; her childhood was spent at home, mostly in bed, due to allergies, and now she keeps screwing up internships since she doesn’t “fit in.” Amazingly, before Monday’s sunrise, Marie manages to outshine Milo in the toxicity department.
“Sunday” is a long shaggy-dog play sutured together with maudlin backstories, embarrassing dance sequences (choreography by Evans) and the announcement of future deaths that run the gamut from old age to suicide.
If I had to pick a show to revisit, I’d go with “King Kong” in a heartbeat.