Theater

The Yellow Peril

New Yorker cartoon, serving as a "production note" in the program, shows a wife blithely asking her husband: "You haven't said anything for ten years. Is everything O.K.?" Trish Harnetiaux's charming, darkly comic Inside a Bigger Box (78th Street Theatre Lab) makes this absurd premise nearly literal.

Home-ec teacher Maud (Janaki) has spoken not one word to hubby Darren (Nathan Guisinger) in six months. And he hasn't noticed. A corporate art executive, Darren babbles at high speed about his obsession, a company exhibit of his master oeuvre on the cultural and artistic significance of the Post-It note, composed of 7834 of the yellow squares. Maud confides in her sister Janet (Melanie Rey), but they talk past each other, each absorbed in separate anxieties and dealing differently with their family's painful past. That history materializes onstage in the walking, talking person of their deceased Mom (Caroline Cromelin), who stole away on Christmas Eve when the girls were eight and 10.

Maud feels boxed in by life, and Harnetiaux, director Jude Domski, and set designer David Evans Morris play inventively on the verbal and visual meanings of boxes. The rear stage wall lowers to become the floor of a whimsical interior constructed of yellow cardboard boxes of every size and shape, open and closed, filled with objects domestic and symbolic.

Harnetiaux explores themes of loss and yearning, deadening relationships, confronting one's past. Janet's (invisible) husband never answers her endless chatter. She lives through the steamy bodice rippers of Safeway bestseller Victoria Valentine, whose hilariously ghastly prose she reads to the glazed-eyed Maud, while Mom reads out her favorite gingerbread house recipe from The Joy of Cooking, their last Christmas treat.

The author plays amusing changes on the equation "food equals love." Assigning an essay on a favorite edible, Maud, constantly starving and stuffing her mouth, gets rattled by a motherless student's 34-page tome on obesity, nothingness, and "the 72-year-old American Icon: The Twinkie."

This brief scene sketches into the background another parallel story of loss and longing. Maud's feeling of suffocation in her marriage repeats her mother's, as the two speak antiphonally, their lines and lives overlapping.

With Domski's briskly paced but sensitive direction, the ensemble nimbly treads the line between caricature and pathos. Janaki understates Maud's desperation for a funny but touching portrayal. Rey's Janet leaks vulnerability through her clueless facade, while Cromelin projects the solidity and warmth of an idealized mother. Guisinger, as a Dilbert cartoon of a man, bulldozes through with his biz/art-speak.

Scarcely longer than an hour, Inside a Bigger Box provocatively sketches in a story that suggests more than it shows. Like a skillful farce, it demonstrates the power of the right few lines, whether charcoaled on vellum or scribbled on a Post-It. —Francine Russo


L.A. Inconsequential

It would be fair to say that the two brothers at the center of Marlane Meyer's new play, The Mystery of Attraction (Worth Street Theater), carry a lot of psychological baggage. Ray, a weak-willed, self-obsessed defense attorney with a bankrupt practice, mopes around his tacky living room in suburban L.A. because he's still in love with his first wife, Sharky. Sharky left him six years ago for Ray's brother Warren—a wife-beating cop who also took Ray’s car to sell for crack money, and who now shows up to get drunk and complain about Sharky's prudish reaction upon discovering his Polaroid "art photos" of an unclothed 14-year-old neighbor. Though jealous, Ray has a more pressing preoccupation with his $20,000 gambling debt; his bookie, Bone Daddy, has recently sent a collection man threatening to lop off Ray's favorite male organ unless he pays up in a jiffy.

This now leaves Ray with two unappealing options: He can try to coax his no-nonsense second wife, Denise—a waitress he met at a bar—to hand over her life savings even though she's realized he's a turd. Or he can accept a payoff from Roger, a mysterious moneybags soliciting his help, legal or otherwise, in getting Vickie, the underaged sociopath he calls his "delicious gumdrop," off the hook for homicide (via Warren, who clerks in the evidence room).

Meyer writes a lot of television, so it may not be a coincidence that the sleazy characters and exposition-heavy dialogue bring to mind a Law and Order episode spun out of control. The playwright ladles on the dysfunction, titillating with each new bit of character information and occasionally pausing to assign blame for their sorry heap of troubles. Meyer's sharpest writing humorously showcases the brothers' spineless sexism as they attribute their many failures to women; in the edgiest scene, Ray languishes before Denise, desperate to succeed with saccharine sweet-talk.

But the darker comic ironies The Mystery of Attraction intends to raise never materialize, even with the ending's surprise revelation. The litany of vices and hypocrisies has a numbing effect, and—presumably to counter it—Meyer drops some shallow emotional confessions into the hashing over of personal histories. A shaken Denise summarizes, "The secret world of men and their games, that's all this is," and wonders, "Who really knows your heart?" Elsewhere Warren philosophizes, sardonically, "We are neck deep in human excrement wondering where to take our next crap."

Director Jeff Cohen finds strong, centered performances with Richard Bekins (as Ray) and Deirdre O'Connell (Denise), but Barry Del Sherman's tentative choices as Warren in early scenes make the character's ultimate rage unconvincing, and the others mostly appear to be on autopilot. —Tom Sellar

 
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