Theater archives

The Fetal Poets Society


Doug Wright constructs his fiendishly clever Unwrap Your Candy like a house of mirrors. The four playlets reflect back our own dark wishes, fears, and foibles, blown up and distorted to hilarious—or chilling—absurdity. As themes and images glance off the disorienting surfaces, they repeat and assume new shapes.

Don’t think you can escape. Onstage, two rows of theater seats face you, the set for the title piece. It begins when the “audience” drifts in one by one, five recognizable types. As they slouch down or dart poisonous looks at each other, we hear each one’s thoughts as recorded monologues. The surgeon with the beeper worries whether he removed the correct organ from his patient; the punctilious milquetoast rumbles murderously toward a noisy cell-phone gabber; the posh matron furiously rationalizes her hypoglycemic’s need for sugar: “What’s the lesser evil,” she challenges, “crinkling a candy wrapper or assault and battery?”

Lest you think these folks aren’t like you, between the acts you may find yourself spotlit while a recording reveals “your” grumpy or libidinous thoughts.

The opener models the structure for two of the other entries, “Lot 13: The Bone Violin” and “Baby Talk.” In both, characters deliver competing monologues rather than talk to each other. This strategy highlights these folks as atoms of egotism, engulfed by their own preoccupations and desires. In “Violin,” the parents of a musical prodigy, the boy’s teacher, and a geneticist each defend the obsessions that drove them to live off the child’s rocketing career. The setting is ambiguous—an auction or a funeral—and the boy has met a mysterious fate. As they spin their fever dream of a tale, their selfishness assumes monstrous and lunatic proportions. Through the piece’s mordantly funny and creepy progress, Wright plays off the Greek theme of metamorphosis, 21st century style.

In “Baby Talk,” a husband, wife, and psychiatrist each relate a version of the wife’s bizarre pregnancy, while, from behind a screen, her fetus plays a vocal role. It’s a hysterical take on women’s fears and fantasies of the unborn within, and men’s resentment at being excluded. This mother-to-be hears her in-utero baby recite poetry, teach haute cuisine (in an adorable French accent), and torment her with descriptions of his swollen head and webbed toes. Lancing hyperbole again and again with dry understatement, Wright—who wrote the Obie-winning Quills—deftly explodes mines of laughter. When the pregnant wife writhes through a lengthy, noisy orgasm—set off by an inside job of oral sex—her bemused mate observes, “I feel shut out.”

Wright also directs, tightly balancing his work between hilarity and frisson. He’s abetted by Michael Brown’s minimal but suggestive sets, Phil Donat’s sculpted lighting, and witty musical commentary from David van Tieghem and Jill Du Boff. Playing multiple parts, his five actors—Michi Barall, Leslie Lyles, Darren Pettie, Reg Rogers, and Henry Stram—turn in versatile, tone-perfect performances.

Wright’s pacing is flawless. He teases with incremental clues, freezes us with a slo-mo crawl, then zaps us with his unsettling, sometimes unsettled denouements. These talents endow “Wildwood Park,” a taut psychological thriller. In the only traditional drama of the evening, a woman real estate agent shows a notorious house to a prospective buyer. Or is he? Pointing out fireplaces and parquet, she nervously refuses to answer his queries about the home’s famously bloody and unsolved crime. Trying to fend off his sordid curiosity, she finds herself torn between scorn for thrill seeking and her own consuming obsession with the evil perpetrated there. As they tour the empty rooms playing a mutual seduction game, the identity of the man blurs threateningly. Is he the murderer? Does she secretly hope that he is?

This mesmerizing work explores the culture of voyeurism and the psychology of the spectator even as the other pieces touch on the parasitic need to feed off the glory or horror of other lives. What do we spectators see when we look in Wright’s mirror? Horrified and grieved in these troubled times, we may spot a dark side of ourselves: the part grimly fascinated by a vast rubble graveyard and the endless retellings of terror and loss.