Leah Nanako Winkler is coming for your rich, white family plays. In “Two Mile Hollow,” playwright Winkler parodies what she calls “white people by the water” plays that center white families sitting around revealing secrets and complaining about their lives, which have become boring because it’s just “one endless weekend.” You don’t have to be intimately familiar with the litany of literary references Winkler makes in the play, from Anton Chekhov to Tennessee Williams to Sam Shepard, to generally enjoy the skewering of the genre. But this production from Intiman Theatre, the first at its new home at Broadway Performance Hall, unfortunately lacks clarity, leaving the play feeling muddled and inconclusive.
The play’s plot is simple enough: The Donnellys gather at their home in the Hamptons to divide its contents before the house is sold. The family is filled with broad-stroke caricatures whose melodramatic secrets spill out over the length of the play. Blythe, the family’s matriarch who lost her husband 11 years ago, is the type of person to meet resistance to her wants with a quick, “Don’t you know who I am?” Her television star son, Christopher, following in his movie star father’s footsteps, wails about the pains of his life living in a fishbowl and under a microscope. Christopher’s stepsister, Mary, is in love with him, and his Yale-obsessed older brother, Joshua, is trying to hook up with Christopher’s assistant, Charlotte. Oh, and of course each sibling considers themselves the “black sheep” of the family.
But what I keep coming back to, and struggle the most with in this production, is Charlotte in the middle of this parodic take on a stereotypical rich white family. Though this play is about a white family, Winkler wrote the play to feature a cast of actors of color (Intiman’s production features an all Asian American Pacific Islander cast) playing over-the-top versions of these rich white folks. It’s a choice that makes the mockery and critique of these typically white-centric stories cut a bit deeper. This is especially felt as the cast leans into the absurdity of the casual racism from their characters, like automatically thinking “Can’t Buy Me Love” is some traditional song from Buenos Aires because it was sung to them by their former maid when they were young.
It’s when attention is directed at Charlotte, the one character who is actually written as a person of color, that things get muddy. Winkler’s play offers regular warnings to Charlotte not to trust these people, even if they say they want to help. After all, they don’t understand what it means to work a job because you need the money to fund your passions. They’re the type of people who can throw money at any problem.
Winkler draws a parallel between the Donnellys and seagulls: They seem carefree, but they’re actually monsters, willing to stamp their feet on the ground to trick worms into thinking it’s raining so they come up and provide the seagulls an easy next meal. The Donnelly family is full of seagulls and Winkler seems to invite you to watch them stamp their feet around Charlotte. One line even directly cautions Charlotte, “As soon as you’re introduced to these people as the help, that’s what they’ll always see you as.”
And this is where the tension falters. Despite Charlotte intentionally being the only truly earnest person in the play (captured exceptionally well by MJ Daly), the way Intiman’s production comes together under the direction of Jesse Jou (making his Intiman debut), it seems to undervalue the emotional core provided by Charlotte. Charlotte’s desire to become a screenwriter, and the unique position the deep-pocketed, well-connected Donnellys are in to make or break that career, somehow winds up sidelined in favor of emphasizing the comedy of the Donnellys’ behavior. Perhaps this is intentional, an attempt to relay to the audience how people of color can be afterthoughts in stories based in a white family’s experience.
But Daly is simply too easy to cheer for, and the end of the play, which I won’t spoil here, centers a major, potentially life-altering choice for Charlotte around whether or not to trust this family. By that point, however, this production seems uninterested in Charlotte’s choice, having prioritized the outrageousness of the family over Charlotte’s journey.
Maybe the reason I struggled with this play lies in the fact that it’s billed as a parody and not satire. From a pure entertainment standpoint, “Two Mile Hollow” is littered with delightfully silly ways to make fun of a type of play that has permeated American theater for decades. Maybe its message is as simple as saying, “Hey, white people, these stories are ridiculous and we don’t need any more of them.” But this play gestures at wanting to say more: referencing the lack of Asian casting on Broadway, mentioning how you can’t make white folks feel stupid, and centering the final major decision of the play around its lone canonical character of color.
I’m simply not left with a solid feeling of what Intiman and director Jou want audiences to leave with. Is it simply being entertained? Sure, I can meet you there. As an admitted fan of Chekhov’s work, I love seeing it parodied, it deserves to be. But there’s something under the surface here. I just wish I knew what.