Sam Shore writes a good argument - several, in fact - in this lively drama about family dysfunction. He has an ear for middle-class crossfire: an unhappy couple exchange stilted phrases and accusations; a teenager sarkily throws articulate insults at her older siblings who are waaay uncool.

This is an unannounced round-robin contest of one-on-one combat for the title of biggest misery-guts (no scene features more than two characters). In the tradition of Mommy Dearest, the fount of all unhappiness is an alcoholic actress, Judith (Michele Hine), who opens the play all false eyelashes and false modesty. All three of her children exhibit some of her egotism.

The play is somewhat disjointed and Judith's monologues could do with an edit, but most of the set-piece squabbles work. Stock scenes - the sisterly sex advice, the dissection of bad childhood memories - abound in this imaginary America.

The playwright, who also directs this production, reveals information at an entertaining pace and some lines hold subtle emotional truths. "I let myself be that woman. I'm her," says Holly (Isla Adamson) bitterly, about how her relationship ended. She doesn't explain, but she doesn't have to; from the context, we know what she means.

Joel Herbert is both natural and magnetic in his small part, while Andrew Ford does a good goober - and both actors know how to hesitate, looking panicked and unsure, before a big revelation.

Lighting up the stage, Chelsie Preston-Crayford provides welcome comic relief with fabulous timing; she successfully invites us to warm to Maureen's careless bitchiness in the midst of her family's uptight passive-aggressiveness.

The show was first performed at the Basement, and neither the scene changes nor the too-shadowy lighting seem to have been adapted for Tapac's larger theatre. But the ghostly Hollywood glamour dresses hovering above John Parker's set instantly evoke Judith's glamour fantasy world, cocooning her while they haunt her family.

What: The Idea of America.

Where: Tapac, Western Springs, to Sunday, and at Art Works Theatre on Waiheke Island on December 3 and 4.