Review: ‘What We Wanted’, manage-a-troise plus two

Asya Danilova

OnStage Associate New York Critic

Marriage can be hard by itself, especially if it is a marriage between three people. College English professor Julian, senior magazine editor Agnes, and elementary-school teacher Sally, try to maintain the fragile happiness of their unconventional family in a small town in Ohio. Add to the equation Reggie, Sally’s adult daughter and Dale, Reggie’s boyfriend, and watch how “What We Wanted”, written by David Harms, tightens up the tangle of human relationships. Unfortunately, the intriguing premise didn’t live up to the expectations. Despite all the jokes and touching moments, the play feels flat and fails to engage the interest.             

Drew Foster directs the well-fitted ensemble of five in a rather restrained manner. The reserved nature of Agnes, who comes from a clerical family, is expected. Elizabeth Rich convincingly portrays a strong intellectual woman fighting with chronic pain and fixing the mess left after her husband’s affairs. Amy Bodnar softly plays the dreamy Sally. She is the girl that everybody adores and she, in turn, tries to be kind to everybody while, at times, being harsh to herself. We get a little glimpse of Sally’s inner world through her monologues delivered to the audience from the edge of a darkened stage. Julian, played by Steven Hauck, remains the character developed the least even though he must have a saturated emotional life: from time to time he ventures into affairs outside of his family of three, which causes a lot of inconveniences for everybody. 
Despite the changes that the family goes trough, “What We Wanted” feels even and mellow over all. Younger characters, fiery Reggie and naive Dale, liven the show up by bringing dynamism of a mismatched couple to the table. I would rather watch a play centered around them, especially since the performances of both Kerry Warren and Brandon Espinoza deliver pure and understandable emotions. 

The set design by Deb O is refreshingly minimalistic. A few monochrome pieces of furniture are placed in a room, while the walls and floor are covered with pages of printed material. When actors move next to the walls, the pages ripple and rustle creating a subtle visual and auditory effect. Although the pages on the walls look nice, it is somewhat familiar and has been seen in at least one more show last year, The Red Room. It is also unclear why the scenic design took this sudden surreal twist. Does it represent the intellectual nature of the family members’ occupations? Does it refer to the poems that Agnes writes but never considers publishing in her own magazine? Or maybe the pages are from the novel that Julian works on? 

Perhaps by placing the action in this allegoric environment, Drew Foster tries to elevate a living room drama to a metaphor of something bigger than just struggles of everyday people (Well duh, isn’t that what theater does in general?) Unfortunately the effort falls short. 
"What We Wanted” runs at the Clurman Theatre at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd Street) through Sunday, January 15. Tickets are $22 and are available at the Theatre Row box office, by phone (212-239-6200 or 800-432-7250) and online.  Photo: Amy Bodnar and Steven Hauck in WHAT WE WANTED, photo by Jacob J Goldberg