It is possible for all the characters in a comedy to be mad, but Richard Nelson’s Goodnight Children Everywhere purports to be a drama. It concerns the reunion in 1945 of 17-year-old Peter, who spent World War II in Canada, with his three sisters, who stayed in England. The children’s mother died in an air raid; their father fell in France. Betty, the eldest and headed for spinsterhood, works as a nurse for Mike, a middle-aged medico married to the middle sister, Ann, who is pregnant and unhappy. The youngest, Vi, is an aspiring actress who gets work only by sleeping with the director.
Peter has come back as a young man, albeit still naïve and a virgin. When he takes a bath in a makeshift tub he brings into the living room, Ann, who yearns for a young lover, masturbates him in the bath. But why bring the tub in there if he is so squeamish? Because otherwise, there’d be no play. Ann then goes and tells her unloved husband about it. Betty gets more maddened by her sex-starvedness. Vi gets weirder by promiscuity; Peter, now bedding and in love with his sister, gets more baffled; and the cuckolded Mike suffers but is too cowardly to act.
Other characters enter the scene: Hugh, another doctor, for Betty to throw herself at; Rose, his daughter, to cure Peter of Ann. Their behavior is almost as strange as that of the principals. Nelson, as his own (inept) director, stages everything for maximum portentousness: long, heavy silences; frenzied onstage laughter that manages to exclude the audience; unpersuasive outbursts and frantic scurrying; relentlessly unhinged behavior. You don’t care about any of this, least of all the endless singing of period songs, from one of which the play’s title derives.
Even the casting is infelicitous. Much is made of Betty’s thick ankles, yet Robin Weigert’s are slender. Ann is the most beautiful woman Peter has ever seen, but Kali Rocha is nothing of the sort (and not very talented, either). Vi is supposed to be superficially charming, but Heather Goldenhersh’s mannerisms could make the most unathletic among us climb up the wall. Mike is English, yet Jon De Vries’s accent falls somewhere between Duluth and Hoboken. John Rothman (Hugh) and Amy Whitehouse (Rose) are, perhaps as directed, caricatures. Chris Stafford (Peter) comes off best, maybe because his part is so passive – Candide among the cuckoos.
Thomas Lynch’s set is splendidly tacky, Susan Hilferty’s costumes ditto, and James F. Ingalls’s lighting aptly atmospheric. Richard Nelson has written some decent plays; here he is not just off but, it seems, positively off his rocker.