There's a sequence early in the laughable drama The Playroom that epitomizes everything wrong with it: With her parents out of the house, 16-year-old Maggie Cantwell (Olivia Harris), the eldest of four latchkey kids, sneaks into the garage with her boyfriend on a determined quest to lose her virginity. While the two fumble around clumsily on the floor, Maggie's youngest brother, Sam (Ian Veteto), sits outside the garage door, trying to sew a merit badge onto his shirt but struggling to thread the needle.
The visual metaphor could hardly be sillier — might as well have the kid hammer a nail through a board or blow a slide whistle — but it's no less subtle a show of parental neglect. Forget about the sex: What kind of parent leaves a Cub Scout to sew his own merit badges?
Unfolding like a cheap, off-brand version of The Ice Storm, The Playroom takes place in the same decadent milieu of mid-1970s suburbia, when the college hippie set has grown up enough to have jobs and kids of their own, but hasn't fully embraced the restrictions of traditional family life.
It's a perilous situation: Agreeing to an "open marriage" doesn't alleviate the sting of cheating, and the responsibility of raising children entails a commitment some restless souls cannot abide. So while the parents are off drinking and carousing and hurting each other, the kids are left to experiment with sex — or maybe to jam a fork in an electric socket.
Director Julia Dyer, working from a script by her late sister, Gretchen, lays it on thick from the start. Before the camera even cranes up to the face of Donna (Molly Parker), the boozy matriarch of this dysfunctional clan, all we get is her midsection as she strides through the living room to the liquor shelf, pours herself a tumbler full of Scotch, and gets the evening started with a sharpener.
Dinner is whatever's not rotten in the bare refrigerator — in this case eggs and bacon, which is feebly passed off as a special treat — and the dining table conversation is as brittle as, well, the ice-cube trays in The Ice Storm. At one point, when Donna's cuckolded husband, Martin (John Hawkes), tries to ease the tension by having the kids practice spelling, one of them asks Martin to give her a word. His choice? "Matrimonial."
As the excruciating evening wears on, the neighbors (Jonathan Brooks and Lydia Mackay) show up for bridge and more drinking, until everyone is so sloshed that Donna and her male guest don't even bother hiding the fact that they're having an affair. Meanwhile, Maggie, Sam and the other two kids, a brooding teen (Jonathon McClendon) and a goody-two-shoes type (Alexandra Doke), retreat upstairs to escape the Edward Albee play happening on the floor below. And once again, the Dyers provide another metaphor worth blocking, as the siblings make up a "Once upon a time ..." fairytale about four children with missing parents who embark on a fantastical journey together.
Did I mention that all this happens on the day Patty Hearst is apprehended?
The performances in The Playroom are all strong, with Hawkes doing a solid variation on Kevin Kline's pitiable Ice Storm character, and Harris the clear standout as a teenager who's old enough to see through her parents' nonsense but impressionable enough to imitate them anyway. The decor, too, feels lived in and specific, as if drawn from vivid childhood memories.
But between the loaded conversations and metaphors, and the phony overlay of a children's fairy tale, The Playroom can't stop telegraphing themes and interpreting itself. There's nothing left for the audience to do.