Popular culture has had a long-standing fascination—part-scorn and part-adoration—with suburbia. Television shows like "Weeds" and "Desperate Housewives" and movies like Blue Velvet and American Beauty reveal the comedic, sadistic, secretive, and sad reality of suburban life. When you look past the perfectly manicured lawns and shiny, new cars, what do you see? Do you know your neighbors? Are they happy? Are you? John Cariani's "Cul-de-sac" attempts to answer these questions.
The play, which first opened off-off-Broadway on April 29, 2006 at the Connelly Theater, was described by the New York Times as a "charming, witty and macabre" study in suburban doldrums. In the years since, Cariani has revised and reworked "Cul-de-sac" for various productions including the upcoming show at Half Moon Theater.
Cariani's dark comedy "Cul-de-sac" explores themes like marriage and suburbia while also allowing women to usurp their usual roles. "Women won't typically get to perpetrate violence or make demands—in life or on stage—and the women in 'Cul-de-sac' do," Cariani says. "They make demands. And they get violent."
While the play began as Cariani's attempt to explore how complicated marriage can be, it became more than that—in the same way marriages often become about more than just the wedded. In some ways, "Cul-de-sac" is the answer to the myriad stories about finding and falling in love—it's the tale that begins five years after happily ever after. "Keeping love is special—and maintaining love is so difficult," he says. "Good relationships require care and attention and time. It's a commitment two people make with themselves, but also with their communities. I feel like people aren't warned ahead of time what they're getting into."
In addition to marriage, Cariani says that he was inspired to write "Cul-de-sac" by his desire to respond to suburban America. "Suburban America isn't what people think it is anymore," he says. "It's diverse. The problems that plagued cities have followed people to the suburbs. I wanted to write about how you can't run from trouble. There's no place far enough away from it."
The play follows three families—the Smiths, the Johnsons, and the Joneses—who live in the same cul-de-sac in the suburbs. They are all trying to find the ever-changing, always-elusive American Dream. It's about the lengths people will go to survive and the danger of trying to "keep up with the Joneses." "It's about how comparing yourself to others will lead to utter despair," Cariani says. "I think that will always be relevant."
As for the generic names of the families, Cariani explains these surnames are not necessarily set in stone. For example, if Hispanic actors played one of the couples they could assume a common Hispanic-American surname if they wanted. He believes the message behind the names is more important than the names themselves. "I want people to remember that the lives of ordinary, seemingly harmless, boring people can be extraordinary and very much in turmoil," Cariani says.
The play, like domesticity and marriage, evokes the full gamut of emotions—joy, surprise, and sadness. Cariani hopes the play will stay with audiences long after the curtains close on the three families. "When they leave the theater, I hope they vow to be honest with their spouses—and as good to them as they can possible be," he says, "And figure out how to want what they already have, because most of us all have so much."
Half Moon Theater performs "Cul-de-sac" April 29 through May 14 at the Culinary Institute of America's Marriott Pavilion. Directed by Michael Schiralli, the production stars Michael Borrelli, Sean Hayden, Katie Hartke, Samantha Jones, Molly Renfroe Katz, and Bruch Reed. (845) 235-9885; Halfmoontheatre.org.