For the subject of his latest play, Christopher Durang has reached into the stewpot of Americans’ current malaise and plucked out one of the most difficult of all: gun violence. This challenging, yet comic new 90-minute production had its world premiere at McCarter Theatre Center May 12 and runs through June 3. McCarter also premiered Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, 2013 winner of the Tony Award for Best Play.
The new play features Kristine Nielsen as Polly, endlessly talkative, whose dialog is pure stream-of-consciousness. John Pankow plays her underachieving husband Jimmy. He announces at the outset that he’s depressed and considering killing himself, his family, or perhaps strangers at the mall. Nicholas Podany is their 13-year-old son. These bizarre parents have never told him he’s adopted, and when he inadvertently learns it, he’s relieved.
Rachel Nicks (Salena) and Robert Sella (Clifford) play the couple’s new neighbors. They’re meant to be the sane ones, but they have secrets too. And Jean Harris plays Rosalind, a new friend of Salena’s, in a role right out of the theater of the absurd catalog: to avoid skin cancer, she wears a pillowcase over her head and does a manic dance when tension becomes too much.
The underlying story—Jimmy’s threats to kill people—will make this play difficult for some audiences. It was for me. Still, I could appreciate much of the excruciatingly dark humor, and the cast puts it over well. It may be funny, but it isn’t fluff. The play’s director, Emily Mann, says the play not only exposes today’s personal and societal anxieties, “it also gently reveals the antidote—reaching out beyond ourselves to find connection with others.”
Important in the play are what is seen and not seen. Polly introduces this idea when she misplaces a potted plant that is in full audience view. Subsequently, several characters see Jimmy leaving the house in disguise, they don’t see the semi-automatic weapons protruding from the duffel he carries. Polly sees the guns but dismisses their importance. For me, this device directly echoes the typical speculations after a mass shooting: “Why did the shooter even have a gun? Didn’t they (whoever ‘they’ are) see he was unhinged/angry/writing in his diary he wanted to kill people?”
All the performances are solid, but the cast standout is Kristine Nielsen, who keeps her knees slightly bent, ready to move in any direction—physically, mentally, emotionally—and brilliantly captures the play’s lightning-fast changes in mood and tone. Jean Harris is also a gifted physical actor, filling her portrayal with well-realized gestures.
Beowulf Boritt’s set conveys a suburban community of overwhelming—and totally misleading—sameness. On the outside, the houses are all such a buttery yellow you could spread them on toast. Mark Bennett (sound design) has created jaunty sit-com music to introduce scenes in Polly and Jimmy’s house, which differs sharply from the classical music and cool grey of Salena and Clifford’s residence. In different ways, both households have turned off the morning news and Durang suggests that hasn’t worked well for either of them.
McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants.
For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.