EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 10, 2013

'Playroom' captures upstairs-downstairs life of growing up with alcoholics

By Roger Moore
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

---- — “Just because your mother smokes doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to smoke,” EveryDad has lectured his teenage daughter since the dawn of cigarettes.

So it is with the Cantwells, a family of six in mid-1970s suburbia.

Dad (John Hawkes) is a seemingly attentive parent who runs spelling bees over dinner and wears a suit to work. He drinks.

Mom (Molly Parker of “Deadwood” and “Dexter”) is all smiles, laughing off a nearly empty-fridge with a dinner of bacon, eggs and toast. She likes to drink, too.

And there are these neighbors who come over for drinks and bridge and maybe a little something extra. Every night.

“We’re all grown-ups, here, right?” And it is the ‘70s.

But “The Playroom” isn’t about the adults, whose idea of play must have seemed ever-so-sophisticated in the Disco Era. It’s about the kids — four children with various coping mechanisms for what’s going on downstairs. They tell candlelight stories in the playroom, imagining fantasies of escape and lives “in a country where children don’t have to have parents.”

Maggie (Olivia Harris) is the oldest, a 16-year-old Patty Hearst fan hellbent on growing up as fast as possible — tossing away her virginity and determined to set the younger kids (Alexandra Doke, Ian Veteto) in the family straight about mom and dad. Christian (Jonathan McClendon) — about 15 — may call his mother “a well-known liar,” but he’s a doting brother.

Maggie is the one who spies on the grownups and passes silent judgment on their carryings on. She serves the kids ice cream and fumes at the supervision her parents aren’t providing, the examples they aren’t setting. She tells them stories about “Childland.”

Director Julia Dyer, working from a Gretchen Dyer script, ably captures the coping mechanisms of the children of alcoholics, downstairs flirtations that end with vomiting and tears, upstairs kids bending themselves into pretzels to pretend everything is “normal,” and that they’re model children.

Mother/ daughter scenes play out as quiet confrontations — “I don’t want to be like you.”

It’s an upstairs/ downstairs homage to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” with children as pawns in the drunken psycho-sexual power struggles of the adults. Dyer manages a nice tension as we wait for something bad to happen or things that are straining at the family to tear it apart — rather like 1997’s “The Ice Storm.”

But “Playroom” provides few “Ice Storm”-style fireworks and no real release for that tension. We’re left to ponder some well-drawn (and well-played) characters coping, the way kids do, and look down our noses at those self-centered ‘70s parents who never notice.

'The Playroom' 2 stars