The modern American theater runneth over with comedies about troubled families. The supply is so extensive that consumers can demand a lot from any particular example.
Jon Klein's "Dimly Perceived Threats to the System," now at South Coast Repertory, is too generic to contend for the title of the Great American Dysfunctional Family Comedy. One of the characters even spells it out, referring to this family's problems as "so commonplace as to be considered downright boring." Klein adds surreal flavoring to his overly familiar situation by incorporating hallucinatory fantasies into just about all of the 20 scenes, but even this becomes formulaic.
Mark Rucker's staging on SCR's Second Stage contributes superficial stylishness. The play has its clever moments, but it's entirely too obvious. It doesn't take the audience on a shared journey of surprising discoveries about what makes these people tick.
Let's begin with the middle-aged mother and father. Marlys Hauser (Heather Ehlers) is a consultant who delivers speeches in which she compares the insecurities of corporate culture to family life. Josh Hauser (Tony Carreiro) is a documentary filmmaker whose latest project will trace the evolution of recent attitudes toward the American family.
Fancy that--these two, who earn a living by pondering the condition of the American family, are plagued by their own family problems.
Klein lays on this irony with a shovel, but he doesn't sift very thoroughly through the dirt. He offers few suggestions about what went wrong for the Hausers, other than brief references to their own loveless childhoods and a broad presumption that the '90s are tough for all families.
He doesn't even connect corporate insecurity--the subject of Marlys' lectures--and the Hausers' own economic status. They're apparently individual contractors, not corporate pawns, and money appears to be among the least of their worries.
The third Hauser is 13-year-old Christine (Heather Dawn). Klein demonstrates what's eating her more effectively than he does in the case of her parents. In her first scene, for example, her parents undercut each other's authority--Josh criticizes Christine's sloppy clothes, Marlys questions her cola-based diet, but each casually advises Christine to ignore the other's words. No wonder she's disrespectful. Dawn doesn't look as anorexic as the script indicates, but she expresses Christine's surly surface and her soft underbelly.
Klein also provides Christine with some of his best writing. A scenario for a creative writing project that she outlines for her school therapist is very funny, consisting of bizarre adolescent revenge imagery .
Some of Klein's many hallucinatory fantasies share a similar sense of humor with Christine's short story, but there are so many of these--imagined by all three major characters--that they inevitably stop topping each other and lose their comic edge.
The characters also include Josh's producer (Colette Kilroy), with whom he has the inevitable affair; Christine's therapist (Bill Mondy), who doesn't make much headway but at least isn't caricatured; and a doctor (Susan Marie Brecht) who's tending Josh's dying mother (Brecht again, but appearing only in Christine's hallucinations). Klein handles these supporting characters nimbly, as do the actors.
As the two adult leads, Ehlers and Carreiro have a few funny moments as they drift in and out of their fantasies, but they aren't able to fully flesh out their vacant characters. Ehlers is stuck with an unconvincing closing speech that suddenly lifts her into focus as the center of the play, though previously she seemed to share that position with Carreiro. This coda feels tacked on.
The staging is on Drew Boughton's field of muted rectangles. Rucker connects the short scenes with sharply choreographed movement of the furniture and props, set to jazzy big band music. Each scene has a title from psychological or sociological jargon, and these titles are displayed in red digital letters on little signs facing each side of the hall.
"Dimly Perceived" serves well as an ironic contrast to "Ah, Wilderness!" on SCR's main stage next door, which depicts how a stable family in a less-jaded era handled teen rebellion. However, a more telling comparison is to the play that occupied this very Second Stage exactly one year ago--Peter Hedges' "Good as New." It also featured an upper-middle-class father, mother and teenage daughter, but it was far more specific and substantive than "Dimly Perceived."
* "Dimly Perceived Threats to the System," South Coast Repertory, Second Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Ends Oct. 25. $28-$43. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
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"Dimly Perceived Threats to the System,"
Heather Ehlers: Marlys Hauser
Tony Carreiro: Josh Hauser
Heather Dawn: Christine Hauser
Bill Mondy: Mr. Sykes
Colette Kilroy: Megan Lone
Susan Marie Brecht: Dr. Grey
Jon Klein's play. Directed by Mark Rucker. Set by Drew Boughton. Lights by Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz. Costumes by Nephelie Andonyadis. Sound by Garth Hemphill. Stage manager Randall K. Lum.