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Bright Ideas

Imagine what would happen if the Macbeths were thirty-something yuppies trying to get their kid into the best pre-school in town. That's what playwright Eric Coble did in penning Bright Ideas, a satirical farce now receiving its regional premiere by the Curious Theatre Company.

Photo of Elizabeth Rainer as Gen and Erik Sandvold as Josh
Elizabeth Rainer as Gen
and Erik Sandvold as Josh
Photo credit: Todd Webster
Driven by urban legends concerning childhood development, the socio-economic pressures of keeping up with Joneses, and blind ambition for their "little Matt" to have the best chance of success in a dog-eat-dog world, aspiring parents Gen and Josh Bradley conspire and bully to clear a path for their upwardly mobile toddler.

As with their ancient power-hungry Scottish counterparts, what begins as an innocuous idea in passing turns into an out-of-control nightmare. Replete with a steady flow of comical allusions to Shakespeare's bloody tale of a power-couple gone wrong, director Chip Walton's take on Bright Ideas is a stomach-churning, belly-laughing roller coaster ride through the egomaniacal peaks and troughs of suburban one-upmanship.

In a role reversal from the Macbeths, Gen is initially reluctant to undertake her husband's plan to eliminate the one person who stands in the way of their precious offspring's matriculation to the Bright Ideas Early Childhood Development Academy. But once the deed is done, it is the lady of the manor whose lust for the crown knows no bounds, while hubby sinks into a morass of regret.

Photo of Elizabeth Rainer as Gen, cooking up a mean pesto
Elizabeth Rainer as Gen
Photo credit: Todd Webster
Elizabeth Rainer's Gen grows before our eyes from a naïve new mother and bumbling account executive into the Leona Helmsley of the PTA set, equally adept at cooking up lethal doses of a chicken pesto linguini, manipulating business accounts, or seducing her rival's husband. An explosive mix of madcap, nonstop zaniness, instinctive she-cat tenacity, and unrepentant power-tripping, Rainer's portrayal becomes so convincingly menacing that by the end of the evening she has no trouble "persuading" 200 audience members to sing to her precious little boy.

Photo of Erik Sandvold as Josh and Elgin Kelley as Lynzie
Erik Sandvold as Josh
and Elgin Kelley as Lynzie
Photo credit: Todd Webster
Erik Sandvold also paints a wild, dramatic arc for Josh, a prototypical Caspar Milquetoast who turns, Walter Mittyesque, into a Jack Daniels he-man, and finally into a beaten-down, hen-pecked, Ernest and Julio Gallo aficionado. Sandvold gleefully toys with our affections as he sticks his famous geniality and pliable countenance into his funhouse bag of tricks and pulls out a series of hyperbolic characterizations that alternately elicit our incredulity, sympathy, and pity.

The rest of Walton's talented ensemble matches Rainer's and Sandvold's double-edged antics, shtick for shtick. Kathryn Gray plays a series of childcare specialists, first a self-absorbed smiley-faced manager of Sunny Days pre-school, then a cowered administrator at Bright Ideas, who has been reduced to using hand puppets to communicate. Gray's mastery of detailed understatement works wonders against her socially-challenged antagonists.

But it is Gen's fellow account executive, Mrs. Malcolm, played by Ethelyn Friend, that comes back to haunt the Bradleys. For this turn, Friend produces an urbane, snobbish divorcée practiced at getting her co-worker's goat, and who, just as easily after a few drinks, navigates herself into Josh's arms. Then, drawing from her unlimited stable of personae, Friend appears as a grandmotherly teacher, browbeaten and drummed out of the corps by Gen.

Photo of Jason Chanos as a coach and Elizabeth Rainer as Gen
Jason Chanos as a kiddie coach
and Elizabeth Rainer as Gen
Photo credit: Todd Webster
Jason Chanos and Elgin Kelley are Ross and Lynzie, who are competing for the bragging rights to being the community's most together couple. Never breaking his smile, Chanos' unnerving, yet nonchalant Ross incrementally ratchets up the ante on the Bradleys, keeping attainment just out of reach for the less experienced couple.

At first face, Kelley's ever-pregnant Lynzie is drawn as a more pleasant version of her impenetrable, Cheshire Cat-like husband, almost nurturing as she chides the Bradleys over the limited scope of their aspirations for perfect childhood development. But after an eye-opening encounter with a tipsy, loose-tongued Josh in which she becomes alarmed at the evidence of Gen's mounting control over Ross, Kelley quickly turns her Lynzie's smug gentility into the life-preserving prowl of a lioness, claws and incisors bared.

Coming off a successful Off-Broadway run, playwright Coble continues to hone his play, adding character and thematic elements to bolster this incisive commentary on the ravages of materialism on the parenting process, and showing why American Theatre magazine recently named him one of "seven playwrights headed for their breakout season."

Bob Bows

 

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