Corrections or additions?

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

culture’s

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

mock-authoritative

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

production,

directed by Philip Kauman, and starring Kate Winslet, Geoffrey Rush,

Michael Caine, and Billie Whitelaw.

"Not Suitable for Children" is performed on a stark,

clinically

white set, with small but spectacular production touches where

warranted.

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,

emotionally

intriguing, and entertaining evening of theater.

The trilogy opens with a scene that initially looks like a vocal

recital.

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

Child"),

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

clipboard

is in fact an impotent and ineffectual witness to the very real

horrors

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

mansion

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"

usually

limits the media’s feeding frenzy after a crime. The curious buyer

seems sincere; but is there a monster beneath his polite but sardonic

exterior?

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,

flanked

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

contrast

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

onstage

role as Baby in "Baby Talk." Their professionalism contributes

its own kind of magic to a persuasive production.

— Nicole Plett

Not Suitable for Children, McCarter Theater, 91

University Place, 609-258-2787. Through January 30. $20 adults; $10

students.


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