A single hour of bloody mayhem which is performed almost entirely on a hearthrug, Michael Dalberg’s “Family Values” is a hard-working, hard-hitting farce. It is though, I’m afraid, a farce. The poster, the publicity, and the handsome Italians on stage at first all promise that “Family Values” will be a stately chronicle of loyalties and treacheries within the Mafia. Just look at the posters which adorn the walls of the venue, the Space on the Mile. There is a blood-red sky and a lonely tree under which some lost soul is presumably buried, all overlaid with the same font that is used in The Godfather poster. It is pretty clear what to expect and it is an amusing surprise when instead, the clown car pulls up.
The whole play appears to sprout from a lone pun, the different possible uses of the term “family” in a Mafia context. Two brothers (Ivan Comisso and Federico Moro) meet in a secluded house in the Florida Everglades, where it seems, from their conversation, that they have just murdered the rest of their “family.” They have time only for some cage wrestling and a little light stabbing, before there is a knock at the door. A holidaying married couple are lost in the swamp and their car has broken down. They invite themselves in and the brothers suddenly find themselves opening the drinks cabinet and submitting to the role of impromptu hosts. The innocence of their hearty visitors might be obvious to us, but it quickly maddens the brothers into paranoia and a murderous incoherence. Suggestively, the wife (Virginia Byron) is called May Abbey (i.e. “maybe”).
For all the blood that is flung about, the pulse which continues to beat without interruption throughout this show is a delirious playfulness. The scenes of torture are startling and they leave many in the audience visibly shocked. Yet there is also something superb and wondrous about the physicality of the play – to see these powerful bodies crashing about like somersaulting brickwork in such a contained space.
“Family Values” reminds me strongly of David Gieselmann’s 1999 farce “Mr Kolpert.” Both feature the model of four people at a house party, one of whom is a diabetic. In both plays, nothing is nailed down for certain and there are no means of corroborating any of the wild claims which are increasingly made by the characters. The eddying chaos in the centre of each story has soon veered out in all directions, like a hurricane, to tear away every remaining wisp of sense. We might conclude that each story has in some way reflected the perspective of its diabetic character, as he had slid into hypoglycaemia.
In “Family Values,” every tiny detail, every line of dialogue and gesture of the actors, is intensely controlled. Paradoxically, so controlled is the play’s appearance that we are fooled into thinking that we are experiencing radical, horrifying pandemonium, as if everything is really degenerating in front of us. This aesthetic, when it is perfected as it is perfected here, affirms what theatre can do at its most exhilarating.