MRT’s ‘Home of the Brave’ veers off the rails

Cheryl McMahon, Joel Van Liew, Jordan Brodess, John Gregorio, Karen MacDonald in Lila Rose Kaplan's “Home of the Brave.” Photo by Meghan Moore.

Cheryl McMahon, Joel Van Liew, Jordan Brodess, John Gregorio, Karen MacDonald in Lila Rose Kaplan’s “Home of the Brave.” Photo by Meghan Moore.

LOWELL – Sean Daniels, the first-year artistic director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, has made premiering new works a raison d’etre for the theater.

But new works are like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: You never know what you are going to get.

Lila Rose Kaplan’s world premiere comedy, “Home of the Brave,” now at the MRT, has its moments, but not enough of them.

Home of the Brave” is being dedicated to the late Daniel L. Schay, MRT’s producing artistic director in the 1980s, who passed away recently.

Yes, “Home of the Brave” is a farce, loosely based on Moliere’s “Tartuffe,” and the normal dramatic and comedic rules don’t apply, but it is littered with awkward, unbelievable situations and too often it goes off the rails and becomes silly, shallow and contrived.

There are some pithy one-liners that land well, and some amusingly quirky characters. But man does not live alone by one-liners and quirkiness.

Kaplan has given us an interesting premise relevant to the ongoing presidential nominating process.

U.S. Sen. Bernadette “Bernie” Spence (Karen McDonald) – say, where have I heard that name before – is betwixt and between after a school bill that was the hope and dream of her late mother, also a senator, is derailed.

It is Christmas Eve – I don’t ever recall anything of political importance happening just before or after Christmas, but no matter – and Spence is in her office bemoaning the situation when there is a visitor.

The stand-in for Tartuffe in this piece is the slick Brit Adrian (John Gregorio) who appears almost out of thin air, arriving on the scene magically as a kind of Mr. Applegate – the devil incarnate from “Damn Yankees. ” He seems to magically and mysteriously have all the answers to whatever Bernie is asking, and is convinced that he can spruce up the family image to the point where Bernadette can run for and win the presidency, eventually assuring the passage of her mother’s bill.

But first she has to paper over the problems in her family, and she invites Adrian home for Christmas in Iowa to begin the process.

That doesn’t go over well with the rest of the family, looking for a traditional Christmas Eve dinner with all the trimmings.

Marianne (Veronica Duerr), a very New Age daughter, is home from Oberlin College – cue super-quirky right away – and has brought a boyfriend named Val (Jordan Brodess), a “gender-neutral” vegan who dislikes using the traditional terms “he” or “she,” which allows Cheryl McMahon as Dora, the housekeeper and cook, to crack “Great. No meat and no pronouns.”

Dora is a veterinary nurse who doubles as a maid and cook and has been in love for many years with the man of the house, Bernadette’s husband Owen (Joel Van Liew) – a veterinarian whom she works alongside of – and it’s OK with Bernadette? Even by farcical standards, it’s a reach.

Dinner, of course, is a disaster, and Adrian’s attempts to make the Spence family presidential are going nowhere.

At some point things start happening in the barn involving pigs and picnics, and there are

amusing moments when Owen and Val somehow end up as a torrid dance duo.

The disbelief factor goes through the roof when the clothes starting coming off, often a sign of desperation by the playwright. At some point, Adrian’s motives for helping Bernie will be unveiled.

Daniels and the cast bring to bear on the material their professionalism and their best efforts, but instead of farce we too often get just slapstick – and not strong slapstick, at that.

And even at just 85 minutes with no intermission, “Home of the Brave” feels stretched out.

To be fair, a recent performance generated a very strong positive audience reaction, so theater-goers will – as they always have – vote with their feet, and word of mouth will have the last word on the future of “Home of the Brave.”

The Merrimack Repertory Theatre production of Lila Rose Kaplan’s “Home of the Brave.” Directed by Sean Daniels. Scenic design by Randall Parsons. Costume designer by Jessica Ford. Lighting design by Brian J. Lillenthal. Sound design by David Remedios. At the Nancy L. Donahue Theatre through May 15.