In Family Game Night, a new play by Peter Kennedy that will be given a staged reading at town hall on Saturday to benefit the Provincetown Theater, the Mortons are uneasy about discussing Mom and Dad’s death. Neither Mom nor Dad is actually about to die, but on this particular family game night, their grown daughter, Andrea, suggests they play a new board game she’s just ordered — a truth-telling-questionnaire tourney that dwells on the subject of, yes, death.
Unknown facts and desires are thus revealed about the entire Morton family. Besides Mom, Dad, and Andrea, the others present are Andrea’s brother Max, who is gay and currently unattached; Andrea’s husband, Jimmy; and their sweetly rebellious teenage daughter, Chloe.
Centering the action on a game is a familiar ploy to define all the characters in an ensemble — the truth-or-dare phone call in The Boys in the Band is an example — but Kennedy makes the proceedings fresh and exceedingly funny. Though the game provides the schematics, they all get gleefully skewered. The timeline is creatively jumbled as well: moments from characters’ futures are interjected in the sidelines to dramatic effect.
Death and comedy are not, surprisingly, an odd couple. As much as we associate long goodbyes with tragedies and tearjerkers, observing people’s fears and discomfort when it comes to dying can be a great way to laugh at ourselves. Kennedy, to his credit, avoids sitcom timing (beat, beat, punchline), clumsy exposition, and treacly sentiment. He skillfully manages to fill his play with the pungent details of contemporary life — tweaking clichés along the way and honestly exploring how the mortal fate of each family member (even the cat, Lester) causes loved ones to see the world anew. The subject of green funerals comes up, as does donating one’s body to science. Dad wants a strict D.N.R. in his living will, and he’ll go to extraordinary lengths to prove it.
At Saturday’s reading, Kathleen Turner will read the part of Mom, a retired physicist who will soon suffer from Wernicke’s aphasia, a post-stroke condition in which patients speak fluently with words that are largely nonsensical (and somewhat poetic). Those afflicted are not conscious of what has happened to them, and communication becomes difficult, if not impossible.
Turner, a renowned actor of stage and screen and a familiar presence at events here in town, became attached to the project after it appeared in playwriting festivals. “I knew the script would be right up her alley,” Kennedy tells the Independent. “She’s working with me now — this reading would be a way to raise the profile of the play and as a fundraiser for the theater.” Turner’s agent helped Kennedy round out the cast.
The other veteran actors are John Hickok as Dad, Franca Vercelloni as Andrea, Dan Shaked as Max, and Bart Shatto as Jimmy, with young Mehret Marsh playing 15-year-old Chloe. David Drake, artistic director of the Provincetown Theater, brought in two local talents: Anne Stott, as the Narrator, who will read the stage directions, and Tope Oni as Cory, a doctor who tends to Mom.
For Kennedy, bringing Family Game Night to Provincetown is a welcome opportunity. “I grew up in upstate New York, in the snowbelt by Lake Ontario,” he says. “I found my way out to Western Mass. I’m a middle school teacher in Easthampton.” He started coming to Provincetown about 10 years ago, and last October married Steven Wernicki, a patent lawyer, at the Pilgrim Monument. When the rental property they used to stay at — one that’s within earshot of the Provincetown Theater’s Playhouse in the Parking Lot — became available recently, they bought it and now consider themselves part-time residents.
“I wrote the majority of Family Game Night over two summers, sitting in the Provincetown library,” Kennedy says. “I always went for that prime real estate on the second floor with a view of the ocean, but sometimes I ended up in the basement.”
The play is not, for the most part, autobiographical. “You can’t help but be influenced by the family you grew up with, but that doesn’t mean that that’s my family onstage,” he says. “I see some of myself in Max and the others, of course.”
Kennedy says he’s deadly serious, ahem, about the subject at hand. “I want to market a game like this,” he says. But mostly, he hopes that people take something useful out of the experience. “When audiences leave the play,” he says, “they talk about it in the car. It starts a dialogue within their own families.”
The event: A reading of Peter Kennedy’s Family Game Night to benefit the Provincetown Theater
The time: Saturday, Oct. 9 at 7 p.m.
The place: Provincetown Town Hall, 260 Commercial St.
The cost: $45 general admission, $40 for students and seniors at provincetowntheater.org