The Goldbergs are a typical family: argumentative, secretive and resentful, prone to putting faith in personal mythology that may have no bearing on reality but has become permanently fixed in family lore. So, yes. Typical. They have gathered to drink a birthday toast to the late grandmother of Caleb — our narrator and guide to all things Goldberg — and to do those things the Goldbergs always do: eat, drink and bicker.
Caleb, though, is fighting several losing battles. He has been trying to keep the existence of his lover Pablo from his parents, not because he’s closeted but because he does not want to provide ammunition for his too-interested mother. Besides, he doesn’t believe his dad is accepting enough of his sexuality. He’s also gun-shy about exposing Pablo to the antics of his family — and is he even ready to commit fully to Pablo, anyway?
Caleb is also struggling to direct the events of the evening, ordering his parents, sister, brother-in-law and lover to re-enact significant moments over and over. There’s a reason for Caleb’s desperation, and it’s not just because the night keeps going off the rails in a hilarious haze of martinis, wine and long-held resentments. Caleb, it seems, is not the only Goldberg with a secret.
Making its world premiere at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors and written by Stuart Meltzer, artistic director for Miami’s terrific Zoetic Stage, “The Goldberg Variations” is a smart, funny, lively, well-crafted work that holds fast to its comic roots even as its mysteries are revealed and the story takes a bittersweet, even tragic direction. The production — the title comes from the Johann Sebastian Bach work — never stops being fun even when it jolts your emotions, thanks to the insights of its shrewd creator, the seamless direction of Island Stage’s Andy Rogow and a cast with impeccable comic timing and a good feel for the material.
Meltzer — whose directing credits include “Passion” and “After,” both of which earned Carbonell Awards for Zoetic earlier this year — has an excellent ear for a good one-liner, but he also has a knack for physical comedy. The play’s framing device — Caleb’s increasingly frantic insistence on replaying the night hoping things will turn out differently — is clever and well executed, and the production continues to surprise throughout, stretching far beyond the boundaries of standard story of wacky family dysfunction. At one point, the good-natured Pablo (an engaging Alex Alvarez, who won a Carbonell for his work in “Stalking the Bogeyman”) raps his life story, an unexpected but delightful bit of business.
The rest of the cast is equally adept. As Caleb, Ryan Didato draws laughs and empathy as he quivers in outrage and fear. As his high-maintenance sister Charlotte, Ilana Isaacson earns (and deserves) quite a few of the laughs (her sobriety erodes as the evening deteriorates). John Manzelli brings humor and compassion to the role of Charlotte’s awkward, conciliatory husband, Theodore, and as Sam and Judy Goldberg Peter Librach and Patti Gardner are a graceful and formidable pair.
Family, we always hear, is the most important part of our lives. “The Goldberg Variations” reiterates this ancient wisdom in a fresh way, just the way we experience our families: with equal amounts of frustration, pain and love.
If you go
What: ‘The Goldberg Variations’ by Stuart Meltzer
When: Through July 16; 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday
Where: Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy., Wilton Manors
Tickets: $35; islandcitystage.org