It takes a while for playwright Sharyn Rothstein to show you where she’s going in ALL THE DAYS. Rothstein writes sitcoms, and the formula shows. Her audacious, mean-spirited one liners are several cuts above television fare and will have you chortling at their cruel candor, but the theme of ALL THE DAYS doesn’t emerge until late in the play, too late to be totally affecting.
Rothstein’s point is the love and even functionality of even the most caustic, obtuse, and insensitive of families. Savage jokes and hilariously deft comic turns save Emily Mann’s McCarter Theatre production until Rothstein shows her bittersweet stripes at about the three-quarter mark.
Caroline Aaron is exceptionally good as the mother, grandmother, sister, and ex-wife who cannot control her sarcasm, accusations, or guilt-making any more than she can control the overeating, especially of sugar, that is going to kill her. Aaron’s Ruth has a reason for her tetchy temper and binging, but it doesn’t seem enough to propel her level of destruction, of herself and others.
Rothstein’s worst misstep is the heavy-handed story that leads to Ruth evolving into her worst self after years of simply being her bad self. This section, about Ruth’s adored son’s death, is too out of kilter with the rest of ALL THE DAYS to compute. Rothstein may want to turn a sharp corner, but she skids and crashes instead of snapping us out of comedy and into pathos.
Aaron does better as you see more sides of Ruth and see her change, especially when he unexpectedly acquires a boyfriend. Leslie Ayvazian and Ron Orbach are also great at landing comic salvos. Justin Hagan is lovably natural as a man who has played the “what I’m supposed to be” game and wants to be real, even as Rothstein lampoons him by having him spout all kinds of new-age verbiage about strength, dignity, and kindness to others. Ruth would have lots to say about that. Good thing she never hears any of it.
[McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ] .April 29-May 29, 2016; mccarter.org