‘Oh Dad’ Delivers Wry Wit

Based on the title alone, “Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You In the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad” doesn’t seem like it would represent tradition. But because of this play’s role in christening the New College Theatre—a gorgeous and deceptively large, if uncreatively named venue—much is made of the multiple generations of Harvard pedigree involved in the production, which runs through November 10.

The play was written by Arthur L. Kopit ’59 shortly after he graduated, and its unconventional path to Broadway included a premiere at the Agassiz Theatre. The director is David R. Gammons ’92, the student producer is Christine K.L. Bendorf ’10, and almost all the actors are current undergraduates at Harvard College. Fortunately, the play is not weighed down by its symbolic connections, instead maintaining a cutting wit and sense of the absurd throughout.

“Oh Dad” doesn’t have a plot so much as a set of relationships that provide a pretext for mounting hysteria. There’s Madame Rosepettle (Alexandra C. Palma ’08) and her emotionally stunted son Jonathan (Jonah C. Priour ’09), whose excessively tight-knit relationship makes Norman Bates look well-adjusted. Intruding into their claustrophobic domesticity in a hotel in Havana are Rosalie (Sophie C. Kargman ’08), in love with Jonathan, and Commodore Roseabove (S. Adam Goldenberg ’08), in love with Rosepettle. The main characters interact in scenes that make heavy use of absurdity and repetition, as emotions spiral out of control.

Gammons stresses the script’s tendency toward disintegration, generally starting each scene at a low-key pace, then amping up the tension, the speed, and the non-realistic lighting and sound as it progresses. In general, this effect lends a welcome sense of momentum, but at times near the beginning, when the play is simply laying groundwork and indulging in verbal gymnastics, it is unnecessary.

Conversely, the verbal action stalls halfway through the second half in order to present the most epic fight scene you’re likely to ever witness between a man, two Venus flytraps, and a piranha. This elaborate analogy for Jonathan’s rebellion against his mother destroys some of the forward drive the dialogue worked hard to create, but is so funny it’s hard to fault.

As Jonathan, a sheltered, stuttering slayer of plants, Priour is painful to watch in the best possible way. His Jonathan seems to physically struggle to get each word out, moving awkwardly and practically exuding the fear and awe he has for his mother even when she isn’t present. Priour gives a nuanced performance as a sympathetic character who often seems simply sheltered and odd, but who is also infuriating in his utter spinelessness—while hinting at being seriously imbalanced. Despite these handicaps, Priour and Kargman work together to make Rosalie’s love for him reasonable. Kargman lends her character a slightly more conventional, childlike quality that matches well with Priour’s quirkier style.

Gripping—or at the very least, attempting to grip—all the other characters in an iron fist is the larger-than-life figure of Madame Rosepettle. Resembling a fashion-forward Wicked Witch of the West in a series of all-black mourning outfits (designed by Heidi Hermiller) in honor of the dead husband whose coffin sits by her bed, she manages to combine the regal and the psychotic eerily well. Palma lends an appropriate volume and edge to her character, often seeming to be on the verge of physically attacking someone, but lacks some of the hauteur that should accompany Rosepettle’s sense of entitlement, even at her most hysterical. Fortunately, Palma is called upon to be aggressive at least as often as contemptuous, and more so as the play’s relationships and characters break down.

The increasing hysteria and absurdity of the proceedings is reflected by an increasing breakdown of spaces and reality as the play progresses. Everything becomes more exaggerated, from the humorous to the shocking. The result is a second half that is much stronger than the first. The set (designed by J. Michael Griggs) literally comes apart, starting as a self-contained room and ending up with the side walls completely turned around and the stage open all the way to the miscellaneous props and lights in back. While it is occasionally distracting when a stagehand has to wheel in a spotlight from the side, on the whole the set design is extremely effective and showcases the capabilities of the New College Theatre.

Similarly, as the play progresses, the line between reality and fantasy—tenuous to begin with—breaks down entirely. Characters who were bellboys in the first half (played by Jonathan J. Carpenter ’07, Allan S. Bradley ’11, and Sam D. Stuntz ’10) become figures from Rosepettle’s past as she describes her relationship with her dead husband. They later embody the plant and fish of the epic battle scene, allowing the play to fully embrace an element of surrealism as it heads toward its remarkable climax.

For a play whose main character is devoted to squeezing joy and life out of everything around her, and which could have been similarly strained by the pressure of opening a new institution, “Oh Dad” is remarkably sprightly—and a wicked delight.

—Reviewer Elisabeth J. Bloomberg can be reached at