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Every show worth watching has a “gotcha” momentthat my-God-the-ghost-is-Hamlet’s-father nanosecond when a director’s flourish, an actor’s gesture, or an author’s phrase irrevocably hooks patrons for the evening. In Dimly Perceived Threats to the System, the gotcha’s in Scene 2.
Chipper, business-suited Marlys Hauser (Jacalyn O’Shaughnessy) has spent the play’s opening moments in a boardroom, giving a motivational speech about how corporations ought to be families writ large. The second scene finds her in her own kitchen the next morning, dealing with the chief implication of her speech’s theme: that families are corporate entities writ small.
Breakfast chatter between Marlys’ husband Josh (Terrence Caza) and daughter Christine (Gretchen Cleevely) about appropriate school attire have been proceeding in a pleasantly sitcomish way. Nail-polish preferences, parenting approaches, and the nutritional merits of cola vs. cereal have been debated. And then, as an otherwise unremarkable conversation is winding down, a phrase Marlys has always associated with the office catches herand ourear.
“We’ve decided,” says her husband casually, “to let you go.”
Looking up from her plate as her jaw drops floorwardalong with pretty much every jaw out frontMarlys receives a brisk performance evaluation that’s as funny as it is deadpan. After more than a decade of capable service, Josh tells her, she is now faltering in both momdom and wifedom, her alleged areas of expertise. She has become distracted and unfocused and is no longer a team player. Besides, it’s time for the family to downsize. So, no hard feelings, he concludes with a smile, but her services will no longer be required.
Sober reflection and a lighting shift will reveal that Josh has actually said none of this. The breakfast conversation has proceeded uneventfully, paranoid wifely imaginings notwithstanding. Small comfort this is to Marlys, of course. Her world has been knocked off its axis, and as she stands stage right, she looks as if she’s been poleaxed.
Call this Ally McBeal moment a fantasy sequence, a surrealist gesture, or whateveras theatrical gambits go, it’s a grabber. And when similar episodes afflict Christine at school (her guidance counselor appears to be suggesting she get a lobotomy), and Josh at the video studio (he thinks he’s being vamped by his attractive lesbian producer, played by Holly Twyford), the evening has clearly discovered a nifty storytelling device.
Not a terribly flexible one, however. For as the Hauser family members keep having fantasies, each time indulging in the same reaction sequenceshock/mortification/relief/puzzlementyou begin to realize just how smart Neil Simon was to vary the devices he used in his recent, comparably family-oriented sitcom Proposals. Both plays use staging gimmicks to explore the pressures exerted on nuclear families in the post-nuclear age and the boundaries between what people wish were true about their lives and what is actually true. The problem in Dimly Perceived Threats to the System isn’t so much that the author’s ploy wears out its welcome as that Klein overestimates its value as a revelatory device. Almost nothing gets said in the fantasy sequences that couldn’t be said more tellingly in traditional scenes between the characters, and the moment that becomes clear, the fantasies become nothing more than delaying tactics.
Which is not to suggest that Doug Wager’s staging doesn’t make the most of them. The director’s flair for situation comedy is pretty much unparalleled, and as he sends the Hausers reeling from boardroom to breakfast nook to counselor’s office, he’s not only making sure the audience is entertained, he’s also having himself a ball. Orchestrating domestic squabbles or choreographing office discomfort, he’s focused and clever, and give him a chance to sneak in a little petit guignolsay, in a jealous rage fantasy about a picnic interloperand he’ll lop off fingers with the best of ’em, complete with blood spurts so comically exaggerated they could easily douse a grill’s worth of charcoal briquettes.
Wager is also in his element with mistaken-intention comedy, as when Christine’s shrink (Bill Kux, in a hilariously geeky performance) and Marlys misinterpret each other, and a romantic pass has to be neutralized mid-gesture. Comic timing has seldom been smoother.
Still, there’s only so much that staging can do when a production concept has delusions of grandeur, and the one for Dimly Perceived Threats to the System is, as the play’s overblown title suggests, far more impressed with itself than is healthy for so slender a domestic comedy. The author says in his program notes that the play is a response to Dan Quayle’s idiotic comments concerning Murphy Brown rather than to Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (aren’t you glad he cleared that up?), while an interview with Wager finds the director chattering away about a “postmodern take on morals and manners” in an age of anxiety. All this for a story about baby boomers contemplating affairs. It makes you yearn for the days when an infidelity comedy could just be an infidelity comedy and didn’t need to first make a case for its own social relevance.
In this instance, the case is pretty flimsy, mostly shoehorned into the play’s margins. Klein has Josh and his producer working on what sounds like a terminally dumb social documentary so that Caza and Twyford can issue authorial bulletins on the decline of familial togetherness. The author also introduces an obfuscating doctor (Brigid Cleary) who is pointedly not caring for Josh’s comatose mother, which allows Klein to take a few cheap shots at the medical profession. Pointedly nonthreatening jokes about homosexuality and some projected scene titles (“Resistance Through Ritual” “Frustration-Aggression Hypothesis”) constitute the evening’s only other claims to being something more than a ’50s family sitcom transferred to the ’90s.
Fortunately for subscribers, Arena’s production is spare and stylish, from Barbra Kravitz’s income- and status-defining costumes to Tony Cisek’s stage-dominating, blurred family photo that eventually comes into focus, and the trickily elegant elevators with which he gets furniture on and offstage (The one drawback of the latter is that the scene changes require momentum-killing 10-second blackouts, but they sure look spiffy.) And without exception, the performers are terrificespecially Cleevely, who’s a hilariously rebellious adolescent, right down to her shiny black nails, and O’Shaughnessy, whose leaps from studied calm to frazzled confusion are as vivid as the ones Sandy Dennis used to make in this same sort of material back in her Broadway prime.CP