‘The Animal Kingdom’ Review: This Family Therapy Weepie Is a Flat Zoo Story

Set entirely at group therapy sessions, this 80-minute exploration of psychodynamics and healing may leave you wishing for characters with more interesting problems.

Clockwise from left: Tasha Lawrence, Uly Schlesinger, David Cromer, Calvin Leon Smith and Lily McInerny in The Animal Kingdom Emilio Madrid

The Animal Kingdom | 1hr 20mins. No intermission. | Connelly Theater Upstairs | 220 East 4th Street 

Theater critics and therapists have things in common. Both sit and listen to people talk about themselves, taking notes about telling turns of phrase or behavioral tics. After a session, both study their notes, assessing strengths and weaknesses. The main difference is that critics can’t prescribe; if we could, we’d be snorting Zoloft in the bathroom at intermission. On the plus side, the reviewer’s job is over after filing copy, whereas a shrink’s labor can drag on for years.

Happily, the road to mental health is only 80 minutes in The Animal Kingdom, an oddly flat and obvious portrait of a family. Set entirely at group sessions, the play orbits around the attempted suicide of college student Sam (Uly Schlesinger), only 21 but with a decade of escalating self-harm under his belt. (Not that he’s allowed a belt in the treatment facility.) Sam and his timid younger sister, Sofia (Lili McInerny), are the products of a broken home. Rita (Tasha Lawrence) and Tim (David Cromer) are several years divorced but prone to glare and snipe.

The family is (or was) nuclear and their psychodynamics follow the same symmetry. Withholding father uses silence as a weapon; mother fills the void with chatter to deflect and control; daughter follows after father in shut-down taciturnity; and son has inherited extreme depression from the maternal side. All very balanced, all very gendered. Sam is queer, which Rita insultingly implies was caused by the divorce, sending the boy into spasms of screaming rage. Honestly, I wish their problems were more interesting. Far be it from me to contradict the author of Anna Karenina but Leo, baby, are unhappy families really so unique?

Calvin Leon Smith, David Cromer, and Uly Schlesinger in The Animal Kingdom. Emilio Madrid

Kindly and soft-spoken therapist Daniel (Calvin Leon Smith) is a model of the mind-healing empath: sensitive eyes, encouraging murmurs, and a soothing ensemble of brown, orange and khaki. He painstakingly draws Sam out of his terrified shell, arms evolving from defensively crossed over chest to wearing shirts that don’t hide the scars. Likewise, each family member gets the chance to confess and process: Tim hugs, Rita sobs, and Sofia admits both anger at Sam and her own brushes with self-violence.

Apart from giving actors a workout and fragile spectators a good cry, it’s not clear what playwright Ruby Thomas (also an actor) intends to say, except that the talking cure cures. The Animal Kingdom premiered at London’s Hampstead Theatre to admiring notices. Do they not talk about mental health in England? We can’t shut up about our trauma. The cast plays it American with no appreciable loss (or gain) of cultural authenticity, given how deracinated and circumscribed this world is. From the title on down, metaphors derived from nature pepper the script. Sam frequently alludes to examples among critters of self-harm, same-sex attraction, and infanticidal parents. When he notes that his major is in zoology, I dearly wanted Daniel to smack his forehead and say, “No wonder you keep making those annoying comparisons!” Perhaps the playwright wants us to view families as zoos, where beasts are unnaturally confined.

Calvin Leon Smith and Uly Schlesinger in The Animal Kingdom. Emilio Madrid

Visually, we never leave the zoo. A two-way mirror covers the upstage area of Wilson Chin’s austere, claustrophobic set, which includes a mint-green rug, gray plastic chairs, and little else. 

Chalky white illuminates this sterile island from Stacey Derosier’s jumbo hanging light box. Completed by Ricky Reynoso’s just-stylish-enough costumes and sinister transition sounds by Christopher Darbassie, The Animal Kingdom is certainly attractively designed, its accomplished actors emotionally transparent and scrupulous in their vocal and physical “tells.” Director Jack Serio, who favors tasteful, intimate immersions (such as last summer’s site-specific Uncle Vanya) stages the affair cleanly, for better or worse. Given that Sam has long been a danger to himself, the story can resolve one of two ways. Was it bestial of me to thirst for blood?

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‘The Animal Kingdom’ Review: This Family Therapy Weepie Is a Flat Zoo Story