A Comic Portrait of an American Family Who Hits the Road

APPROACHING ZANZIBAR Play by Tina Howe. Directed by Carole Rothman. Whether in mileage or metaphor, the longest way round isn't necessarily the shortest way there. Nor is it meant to be. Tina Howe proves the point with ``Approaching Zanzibar,'' a fragmented comedy about a family on the road. The author of such previous estimable Second Stage Theatre offerings as ``Painting Churches'' and ``Coastal Disturbances,'' Miss Howe has assembled a series of animated snapshots of the Blossoms and their two children as they drive west to pay a final visit to a fatally ill relative in Taos, N.M.

``Are we there yet?'' plaintively asks one of the children as they head for their first-night destination in Pennsylvania and Howe begins proving her familiarity with this kind of road talk.

Plumped in the back seat, Turner Blossom and his sister Pony (Clayton Barclay Jones and Angela Goethals) sing, play word games, bicker, and occasionally threaten to get out of hand. Wallace and Charlotte Blossom (Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander) try to maintain a modicum of parental discipline and occasionally differ stormily about driving responsibilities.

With imaginative help from set designer Heidi Landesman, the Blossoms pause for rest, refreshment, sightseeing, and even sailboating. Their itinerary takes them to the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Texas Panhandle before landing them in Taos.

With each stopover, the playwright adds further details to the traveling family portrait. The audience learns, for instance, that Wallace is a Juilliard professor whose inspiration as a composer failed him after the success of his ``Atlantic Suite'' and that young Turner is a guitar prodigy.

By the time they reach Taos, Howe has more or less prepared the Blossoms for their visit with the dying Olivia Childs (Bethel Leslie), a once-noted avant-garde artist. Mileage and metaphor converge in a surprise ending that is both upbeat and poignant.

``Approaching Zanzibar'' enjoys the benefits of Howe's distinctive observation, irony, and precise verbal style. The play is attractively acted by the principals and the surrounding cast assigned to an assortment of engaging incidental roles.

One wishes that, along with her care for the Blossoms and her interest in their adventures, Miss Howe had introduced a greater dramatic substance into these wayside sketches. The events at the Second Stage may leave some spectators feeling that - after all the snapshots have been put on display - other people's trips tend to remain mostly of interest to other people.

The production was lighted by Dennis Parichy and costumed by Susan Hilferty.

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