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Critic: Nicole Plett. Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on January 26,
2000. All rights reserved.
Review: McCarter’s Not Suitable for Children
Playwright Doug Wright is a keen observer of our
preoccupation with the sovereignty of scientific fact and the inherent
logic of evidence. Battered and bombarded by 24-hour news cycles of
real crime, today’s theatergoers are ripe targets for his
exposure of the latent horrors lurking beneath the unremarkable veneer
of suburban life.
Wright’s three new one-act plays, produced by McCarter Theater under
the umbrella title "Not Suitable for Children" and playing
through January 30, employ up-to-date notions of fact, testimony,
and evidence to weave incredibly traditional (in the best sense of
the word) and scary tales of horror. While the Texas-born playwright
names Roald Dahl, Joe Orton, and Charles Addams among his heroes,
Mary Shelley, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and the Brontes
are all roots of the same family tree.
Wright is best known for "Quills," his Obie Award-winning
play about the Marquis de Sade. Premiered in 1995, Wright has since
written the screenplay for a film of the same name, currently in
directed by Philip Kauman, and starring Kate Winslet, Geoffrey Rush,
Michael Caine, and Billie Whitelaw.
"Not Suitable for Children" is performed on a stark,
white set, with small but spectacular production touches where
Directed by the playwright and featuring an excellent ensemble of
Joanna P. Adler, Olivia Birkelund, Jefferson Mays, Tom Nelis, and
Jonathan Walker, the one-acts offer a dramatically rigorous,
intriguing, and entertaining evening of theater.
The trilogy opens with a scene that initially looks like a vocal
Four actors take their places at four ornate, lyre-shaped white wooden
music stands and test out their vocal cords. Then, confounding our
expectations, the man who enters in tuxedo and black tie and takes
his place behind the podium does not raise a baton; he smacks down
an auctioneer’s gavel. "Lot 13: The Bone Violin" is both the
play’s title and the catalog description of an item for sale, placed
downstage center, and draped demurely beneath a white cloth.
As four characters begin to relate their testimony,
we gradually learn that an extraordinary child music prodigy has been
born to this ordinary middle-class couple. The testimony is delivered
in fits and starts — sometimes simultaneously — with a cadence
that carries its own musical meter and timbre, by four witnesses to
the boy’s first 10 years. Primary among these is the boy’s devoted
mother (Olivia Birkelund) who does her best to explain, invoking such
experts as Alice Miller (author of "The Drama of the Gifted
how she and her husband came to tailor the child’s idiosyncratic life
to his uncanny musical "gifts."
The more stoic father (Tom Nelis), grudgingly describes how he gave
the boy a Louisville slugger — only to have him whittle it into
a crude violin bow. An initially skeptical music professor (Jefferson
Mays), who takes on the boy as his prize student, also testifies to
the boy’s extraordinary musical expression.
Are precocious intellectual and musical gifts bred in the bone? The
genetic engineer and biotechnology entrepreneur (Joanna Adler) in
her white lab coat wants to know. Yet in Wright’s world of evidence,
the white-coated, highly-educated "expert" clutching a
is in fact an impotent and ineffectual witness to the very real
being played out before them.
The second play of the series, "Wildwood Park," is a less
compelling, but distinctly topical, encounter between an anxious real
estate agent (Olivia Birkelund) and a would-be buyer (Jonathan Walker)
who meet at a lavish but "tainted" property, a suburban
that is the scene of a notorious grisly crime. Over the course of
the real estate tour, information about past horrors is gradually
meted out to the anxious audience, even as the saleswoman complains
that "society is predatory." The flaw in this drama may derive
from the character of the real estate agent driven to neurosis by
her current assignment. Although she should, by rights, arouse our
sympathy, her succession of mutable masks are so familiar from her
real-life counterparts that they make it difficult for us to believe
her so-called testimony. And "No arrests, no conviction"
limits the media’s feeding frenzy after a crime. The curious buyer
seems sincere; but is there a monster beneath his polite but sardonic
Completing the "Not Suitable for Children" trio, is another
potent play, "Baby Talk," a witty yet emotionally searing
fantasy about parenthood and procreation. Presented in the form of
a medical case study, a young mother, Alice, sits center stage,
by two steady witnesses: her husband and father of their child, and
her psychiatrist. As the two men present the case, Alice offers us
her own heartfelt and persuasive monologue: a reading "between
the lines" about the circumstances of both her pregnancy and her
supposed mental breakdown.
Language is Wright’s powerful ally as he hones these stories to the
most believable and apt expression that comes out of the mouths —
and hearts — of their complement of characters. He likes to
the scientific speech of the experts with the words that his ordinary
protagonists hunt for, seize on, and present as gems for inspection.
An outstanding and versatile ensemble of five actors gives this suite
of three plays a special strength. We are dazzled to watch an actor
such as Olivia Birkelund — so perfectly perky and credulous as
the violin prodigy’s mother — take on a significantly different
persona as the real estate agent. As the wife and mother Alice, Joanna
Adler is likewise impressive. Also brilliant is the craggy Tom Nelis,
who moves from his role of a believably timid and confused blue-collar
father in "The Bone Violin," to an astonishingly nuanced
role as Baby in "Baby Talk." Their professionalism contributes
its own kind of magic to a persuasive production.
— Nicole Plett
University Place, 609-258-2787. Through January 30. $20 adults; $10
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