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Hothouse of liberals sweats a bit

Special to The Times

“Warning: This play contains no nudity” reads one South Coast Repertory mailer for “A Naked Girl on the Appian Way,” Richard Greenberg’s mildly subversive new comedy, in which the ties that bind a wealthy, liberal family are rewired for maximum bewilderment.

There’s not a whole lot of soul-baring, either, in this light, agreeably provocative production, which occasionally suggests a domesticated, non-tragic variation on Edward Albee’s “The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?” Here, it is the adult children of an erudite, tolerant boomer couple who supply most of the disruptive surprises that rock the “beautiful house in some Hampton,” as a stage direction waggishly puts it.

That gives a clue to Greenberg’s gently satirical attitude toward his self-consciously enlightened leads, whom he deftly sets up for a fall. There’s big-business maven Jeffrey (John de Lancie), whose career, though never quite spelled out, has somehow advanced George Soros-like ideas about “humanizing” the practices of globalization; he’s now struggling to write a book about art’s ameliorative effects on the savagery of capitalism through the ages. His wife, Bess (Linda Gehringer), is a cookbook and homemaking guru who can summon Ruth Reichl’s quotes about her last book at the drop of a bay leaf.

This is a couple, in short, who live up all too snugly to the withering assessment of a cranky neighbor. “You probably quote each other’s books a lot,” says Sadie (Ann Guilbert), an unapologetically misanthropic septuagenarian imp given to wandering in at inopportune times to hold forth on the flaws of the “women’s movement” and the ingratitude of her daughter-in-law Elaine (Mary Joy).

Sadie is something of a glass-house critic herself, having dined out for years on such contrarian post-feminist tomes as “Against Motherhood.” Elaine, like apparently everyone else on the “colony,” is also an author, her current two-volume study of menstruation no doubt breathlessly awaited by fans of her seminal woman’s novel, “Stella Suspended.”

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Tumbling back into this epicurean hothouse are Jeffrey and Bess’ adult children, towheaded Thad (Terrence Riordan) and dark-skinned Juliet (Dawn-Lyen Gardner), back from a happy wanderjahre in Europe, and bearing some very big news. Completing the reunion of this adopted family is son Bill (James Yaegashi), a sullen, self-dramatizing librarian of Japanese descent, who’s on hand to pick at his favorite emotional scab -- namely, the well-meaning multiracial fiction his parents have constructed by adopting, as Bill bitterly puts it, a “gook,” a “Nazi” and a “Dominican chick.”

For all the play’s frank, fearless wit, its takedown of Jeffrey and Bess’ 1960s-bred idealism is more kid-glove work-over than emotional earthquake. With his hilariously gaping double takes, De Lancie’s shell-shocked patriarch would fit quite comfortably on an upscale New England spinoff of “8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter.” Gehringer nicely fits the mold, too, as a homemaker who, for all her sheen of sophistication, just wishes everyone would sit down and eat her meticulously prepared dinner.

Like a master chef himself, Greenberg layers in a dollop of welcome socioeconomic subtext. The couple’s Anglo-Saxon golden boy, Thad, is preternaturally confident and in touch with himself, while the peevish, pent-up Bill and the quietly sober Juliet are at odds, to varying degrees, with their cozy upbringing. Even the family’s relative lack of dysfunction, its unfailingly supportive environment, is slightly suspect to these children of privilege.

“Our parents are cool,” says Thad, whose overbearing sweetness Riordan makes genuinely affecting. “It’s easy to be cool when you’re rich,” replies Bill.

As the foul-mouthed, pastel-clad Sadie, the charmingly crusty Guilbert gets the show’s best punch lines, made all the punchier for having the disarming indirection of seeming non sequiturs. Unapologetically deploring her late son but giving a plausible reason for his persistent unpleasantness, Sadie, in a typical one-liner, explains, “There were worse mothers than I. But I never met them.”

Mark Rucker’s direction is a model of farcical economy, as bright and clear as Tony Fanning’s glistening set or Peter Maradudin’s circadian lighting. Like the play, in fact, Fanning’s exquisite homestead perfectly embodies the fulsome tastefulness of the matter-of-factly well-to-do -- the sort of multifaceted snobbery of literate folks who can joke knowingly about “Republican Orange County” while making a “salad with 49 ingredients.”

It’s no surprise, then, that South Coast Rep commissioned “Naked Girl” from the prolific Greenberg. Its ticklish, unrancorous ribbing of the well-heeled is catnip for the theater’s subscribers. It makes a pretty fine evening of low-impact entertainment for the rest of us too.

*

‘A Naked Girl on the Appian Way’

Where: South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays, 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

Ends: May 8

Price: $27 to $56

Contact: (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org

Running Time: 2 hours

John de Lancie...Jeffrey

Dawn-Lyen Gardner...Juliet

Linda Gehringer...Bess

Ann Guilbert...Sadie

Mary Joy...Elaine

Terrence Riordan...Thad

James Yaegashi...Bill

Written by Richard Greenberg. Directed by Mark Rucker. Sets by Tony Fanning. Costumes by Joyce Kim Lee. Lighting by Peter Maradudin. Sound/composition by Steven Cahill. Stage manager Scott Harrison.


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