NEW YORK — It's always difficult to sell your family home, especially if it means severing most ties with the people you grew up with and loved.
The tug-of-war between embracing happy memories and letting go of the past is at the heart of "The Picture Box." The quirky, melancholy short play by Cate Ryan is currently being presented by the Negro Ensemble Company off-Broadway at the Beckett Theatre on Theatre Row.
Although the play feels incomplete, it has some interesting characters, who, through shared memories, describe but don't explain the decades-long friendship between a privileged white family and the now-retired African-American couple who worked for them, first on Long Island and then in a wealthy Florida island community.
Directed by Charles Weldon, artistic director of the NEC, the drama goes curiously flat at times. The story centers around Carrie (an over-smiling, opaque performance by Jennifer Van Dyck) who is still trying to decide whether to sell her recently deceased mother's large Florida house, even though it's the day of the closing.
Urging her to sell and get on with her life in New York are the family servants, whom Carrie and her mother regarded as close friends. Arthur French is loving and wise as Mackie, the former cook and caretaker, while Elain Graham exudes dignity and pride as his tart-tongued but loving wife, Josephine.
Carrie and Mackie look through a box of old photos, conjuring up mostly warm, loving memories that provide colorful stories, while Josephine adds reminiscences brought out by the sight of her old ironing board. But the stories, while entertaining and fondly told, don't help the characters explore any deep issues.
The potential homebuyers are unfortunate stereotypes from another era. The bombastic, outspoken bigot, Bob, (portrayed with bluster by Malachy Cleary) is barely held in check by his slightly more open-minded wife, Karen, (Marisa Redanty, adding layers to a slightly-written part.)
It's unclear why Bob would be as outspokenly rude as he is, going so far as to question the validity of Carrie's friendship with Mackie and Jo right after meeting them. Carrie's failure to react much when Mackie reveals the truth about the disappearance one day long ago of her favorite dog is odd, and the sad story of Mackie's broken relationship with his now-imprisoned son is another loose end left hanging, along with the reasons Carrie's mother was so distant in her childhood.
Ryan is a good writer of natural-sounding dialogue, but this play, while thought-provoking, would benefit from more resolution and depth.