Confession: I spent many years as a ballet mom. This means that when my daughter was thirteen or fourteen, dancing in the corps of some local production or other, I'd be craning my head from side to side for a glimpse of her prettily waving arms, completely ignoring the principals, except for an irritated wish that they would stop twirling and jumping around in front of her. That's actually a mild version of ballet mom-dom. I've seen parents dragging reluctant children from dance school to dance school, yelling at teachers and trying to get choreographers fired.
I mention this because Eric Coble's Bright Ideas clearly struck a chord with many of us in the opening-night audience. At intermission, the nice young man sitting next to us began discussing the merits of the private school his neighbor's son attended versus the public school to which he sent his child. In the line for the ladies' room, I heard a university dean comment on the competitiveness of students' parents.
Bright Ideas is about a couple who will do anything -- literally -- to get their toddler into the best kindergarten in town. This could be a vacuous sitcom premise -- in fact, the first scene is disappointingly obvious -- but for the most part, Coble attacks it with savage humor, leavened by moments of dazed empathy. Genevra and Joshua were nice enough people, after all, before cultural pressure and their own concept of what good parenting required drove them to insanity.
The couple's only son, Matt, was signed up for the Bright Ideas school on the day of his birth. As the play opens, he's almost four, and he's first on the waiting list. Genevra has a viperish co-worker, Denise, a single mom whose son is already enrolled. Impulsively, Genevra invites Denise to dinner. She tells Joshua what she's done via e-mail. In a parody of the famous monologue in which Lady Macbeth receives a message from her husband and decides that King Duncan must die so that Macbeth can gain the crown, Joshua leaps at the idea of murder. He then convinces his frightened wife to go along with the plan. A torrent of Macbeth references follows. Denise is rushed to the grave with a helping of poisoned pesto, and now that reluctant Genevra has tasted blood, she's unstoppable. Matt gets into Bright Ideas, but that's not enough for her. To help him succeed, she unleashes a reign of terror against teachers and fellow parents that easily rivals Macbeth's bloody rule of Scotland. If she doesn't quite say, "I am in blood/Stepp'd in so far that should I wade no more/Returning were as tedious as go o'er," she might as well. By the time Genevra has driven a stake into a pregnant fellow mother, Joshua is a drunk, mad, sleepwalking mess, perpetually trying to wash his hands clean of invisible pesto.
This story is told in a series of wickedly cartoonish scenes and a couple of oddly touching ones, like the moment when Genevra, sweetly reading to her son, absorbs a book's implicit message that a good, loving mother will do anything -- including killing -- for her child.
The play's ending doesn't provide as big a payoff as I would have liked. Coble seems to have attempted to mimic the mass bloodletting that closes Macbeth, but it's hard to do that when there are only six actors at hand. Nonetheless, Bright Ideas makes for a hilarious evening of theater.
The acting is terrific. Director Chip Walton has kept all the performances balanced -- which means that every actor works at roughly the same level of insanity. You can't take your eyes off Ethelyn Friend's loathsome, snakelike Denise, yet Friend is equally convincing in the second act as a timid, rabbit-eyed teacher. Erik Sandvold and Elizabeth Rainer hurl themselves into the roles of Joshua and Genevra with great energy, freedom, relish, panache and physicality, though I'd like to see Rainer work more from the diaphragm; some of her words emerged too breathy and high. There's strong support from three other actors: Jason Chanos is fine in all his roles; Elgin Kelley is a sweet-but-tough mother; Kathryn Gray shines in a variety of parts, including an "enunciation specialist" and a cranky beaver.
The entire production coheres. Matthew E. Morgan is the sound designer, and the music sometimes rocks, sometimes thunders and sometimes just murmurs murderously. The set, by Charles Packard, seems constructed of educational wooden blocks, set against a crayon sky. In one area, the blocks are piled into something that resembles a Greek temple.
Young Matt never appears on stage, but fragments of dialogue make it clear that the child is falling apart. Poisonous mothers appear over and over in myth and fairy tale, destructiveness being the flip side of a mother's power to nurture, but we don't need to go to Snow White and Cinderella for examples. Anyone remember Wanda Holloway, arrested in 1991 for trying to get an undercover agent to murder Verna Heath? Heath's daughter was competing with Holloway's for a spot on the cheerleading team.
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