Having an ex-boyfriend crash your wedding may not the best thing in the world, but it could be worse: He could also have dated your dead sister.
That's the premise behind actress and fledgling playwright Zoe Kazan's play "We Live Here," which made its Manhattan Theatre Club world premiere Wednesday at New York City Center. The work drags at the beginning and is pretty predictable but Kazan, granddaughter of the late director Elia Kazan, shows promise.
The play is set over a supposedly happy weekend at the Bateman family home in New England. Maggie and Lawrence Bateman (a first-rate Mark Blum and Amy Irving) are preparing for the wedding of their oldest daughter, Althea (an excellent Jessica Collins) to her fiance (a sweet Jeremy Shamos).
Things take a twist when the youngest daughter (a sensitive portrayal by Betty Gilpin) shows up with her boyfriend Daniel (nicely complex by Oscar Isaac), who has a long and tortured relationship with the Bateman family. He used to be the boyfriend of a third daughter, who killed herself years ago.
Now he's on the arm of the precocious Dinah. But he clearly has a past with the bride, too. The first act sets up the family dynamic but eats up too much time, while the shorter Act 2 is the dramatic payoff. Its director, Sam Gold, has gotten the most from his cast, but the material needs to meander less.
Kazan, whose stage credits include "A Behanding in Spokane" and "The Seagull," has a nice ear for dialogue. She also recognizes how the idiosyncrasies of relatives can drive us absolutely crazy and how families really interact: They are more passive-aggressive than definitive.
She also provides a few lovely lines — "You think your sadness is the most interesting part of you, but in reality, it's the least" — and several nice scenes. Her play has clearly benefited from a great cast, as well as a remarkably lifelike set by John Lee Beatty and warm lighting from Ben Stanton.
The space between Dinah and Althea is Kazan's main focus, but she is also exploring how we react to tragedy. Sometimes, though, the focus gets muddled. A discussion about Aristotle's use of hamartia — the tragic hero's flaw — is simply overreaching and the appearance of a storm raging outside while tension builds inside the house is too obvious.
But there are some excellent parts, too: Dinah has a lovely scene in which she discusses the joy of experiencing sensations after suffering illness, and Kazan includes a nicely realized time shift in which Althea and Daniel become 16 and 17.
Family dynamics and how people overcome past loss clearly interest Kazan. Her first play, "Absalom," also dealt with a family — this time the focus was on a father and his sons, one of whom is coping with a dead son and cancer. She might get more attention than other young playwrights because of her name and acting credits, but "We Live Here" signals good things ahead.