To evoke the famous opening of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: while happy families may all be alike, there are countless ways in which each unhappy family is uniquely dysfunctional. Thus, it isn’t altogether surprising that playwright Tom Dugan has discovered a hilarious and original play by bringing together a few quirky family members in Cemetery Pub. Pigs Do Fly’s production at Wilton Manors venue Empire Stage is only the second of this new play, which has only been produced once before at a makeshift venue in the playwright’s backyard.
The play is set in one of the dingier neighborhoods in New Jersey, a setting Dugan expertly evokes through dialogue and seems to have intimate knowledge of. This is somewhat unsurprising given that it’s also noted on its poster as having been “inspired by actual rumors.” As the playwright revealed in an opening night talkback, the piece is indeed partially inspired by certain details of his family history as well as his childhood imaginings of a more colorful interplay between his relatives than the more pedestrian reality.
Of course, given some of the more sordid details of this piece, it’s something of a relief to learn that not everything onstage had a real life analog. Most notably, one of the first things hinted at and eventually described in detail is an affair between Danny and his first cousin, Sally. After said affair and the ensuing disapproval drove a wedge between Danny and the rest of the family, it’s only in the wake of Sally’s death that her daughter Dixie finds occasion to reach back out.
The play encompasses their reunion, which takes place at the titular bar Dixie now presides over in her mother’s absence, aided by her kindly Uncle Ken (another cousin of Danny and Sally’s.) At first, the two seem to have summoned Danny simply to offer him a job helping run the place. And though it’s a largely comedic banter that then ensues between the three colorful characters, it gradually becomes clear that there is a second, more sinister side to the invitation that has to do with a vindictive thug named Choo Choo, who recently rammed a knife through Dixie’s hand and has given her and Ken reason to suspect that he may have even darker motivations the next time he comes around.
After all, as you might expect from this play’s gruesome title, death is never too far from the character’s minds in this particular watering hole: in fact, O’Brien’s Tavern got the nickname because a cemetery is lurking just across the street. Along with being the resting place of Dixie’s mother, said cemetery even more recently became the resting place of Danny’s wife, who just passed away from breast cancer. The fact that this is the same disease that killed Dixie’s mother and has haunted her family’s women for generations is also referenced throughout the play, leading to one poignant moment where Dixie reflects on how knowing her time may be limited has affected her plans for her future.
Though the specific circumstances of Danny’s wife’s passing also relate to the play’s high stakes, said stakes are not clearly established until pretty late in the game, which in turn led to an ending that though affecting may have felt more earned and cathartic with a more gradual set-up. Still, thanks to consistently witty humor and gradual revelations of backstory that consistently add intriguing complexity to the characters’ lives and relationships, the story remained thoroughly entertaining and engaging throughout.