In keeping with the primary plot device — confession, compassion, and forgiveness — in “Blood — A Comedy” by David Lee White, I will start off my review with a confession: I read a copy of the script of this new play before I went to see it. After reading it, I considered being as compassionate as possible despite my mostly negative reaction. Now, after seeing it, laughing heartily through it, and generally having a good time, I need to forgive myself for presuming that the Passage Theater could never pull this one off. They did. The lesson learned: A farce has to be seen to be credible even if everything that is heard is incredible. Given the right director and a cast of expert farceurs, sometimes the most idiotic, messy, and contrived comedies may transcend its limitations.
Sixty-something college science professor Jackie Stanzi (June Ballinger) has planned an at-home dinner party to include her 30-something daughter Franny (Charlotte Northeast) and Franny’s 30-something fiance Matthew (Damon Bonetti). Her “asshole” of a husband has long since departed. It is the eve of Franny’s wedding and the table is set for four which troubles Franny. The fourth setting is for her 30-something brother, Alec (Sean Roach), a vagabond who hasn’t been home for two years.
It’s quite an impressive interior that designer Jeffrey Van Velsor has evoked: knick-knacks, masks, and statues from around the world adorn the dark red paneled sunken living room, the impression given of an educated, well-traveled family. However, Jackie has been showing signs of Alzheimer’s, a factor that has not escaped the head of the science department. She has lost her tenure and been banned from lecturing ever since she introduced “Intelligent Design” into her science class. Although she has been a confirmed atheist all her life, her reasoning that God could be lodged in the neurons and nasty little proteins in the brain (“God may control our destinies through our DNA”) did not meet with his approval.
It is Jackie’s questionably intelligent design to gather her children, also confirmed atheists, together and initiate a game in which everyone will confess or reveal something terrible that presumably will lead them toward compassion and forgiveness. Of course, each of them, including Matthew’s father, Noah (Christopher Coucill), who arrives somewhat late, is revealed as having more emotional, physiological, and psychological baggage than any one family should have to contend.
Despite Jackie’s short fits of fury and forgetfulness — she has forgotten to light the oven while preparing dinner — she wants Franny, whom she announces as “being a little loose” to tell Matthew, a born-again Christian and a virgin, that she has been “a slut” and has slept with every man she has ever dated. But what about “gayish” entrepreneurial brother Alec’s porn website and his latest pyramid scheme involving the selling of fake marijuana he calls Kansas City Gold? And surely bible-belting Matthew is hiding something, as is Noah, who has his own issues with his memory, mostly of deja vu. The question soon becomes apparent: Is the conjoining of the bloodlines of these two families through confession the way to bring religion and solidarity back to Jackie’s otherwise dysfunctional family.
The key to the success of this scattershot/scatter-brained farce is the frantic, frenetic pace devised by director Adam Immerwahr. He has coaxed the actors into a wonderfully cohesive breakneck style. There are moments of respite when Jackie breaks the fourth wall for some delightfully lucid commentary about the bridge between science and religion and what she believes is motivating her quest for family unity and understanding. Ballinger, who is better known as the artistic director of the Passage Theater, is making a long overdue return to the stage. She runs around, exits, and enters beautifully dressed but in bare feet, blathering to us about DNA and then baiting the gathered into a frenzy of daffy digressions and denials.
Roach appears devilishly and disarmingly in league with Alec’s perversity and becomes an unexpected provocateur when he puts the unwittingly susceptible Matthew into a hypnotic state. Credit Bonetti, as Matthew, as the first actor to ever affect an orgasm as a result of eating hot pepper cheese cubes. With memory loss affecting Noah (a commendably dim performance by Coucill), as well as Jackie, the question remains whether to blame the town’s water supply or White, the author. White, who also serves as the Passage Theater’s associate director, has concocted a raucously philosophical farce, one that I concede, must be seen to be believed.
Blood: A Comedy, Passage Theater, Mill Hill Playhouse, Front and Montgomery streets, Trenton. Through Sunday, November 22. David Lee White’s comedy about faith, science, family, and hot pepper cheese cubes. $25 and $30. 609-392-0766 or www.passagetheatre.org.