Devotees of old-fashioned British sitcoms will feel right at home in Susan Chester’s well-appointed living room, the setting for Stewart Permutt’s one-woman play Unsuspecting Susan. Portrayed by English actress Celia Imrie (Calendar Girls, Bridget Jones’s Diary), Susan is brisk, sensible, and hopelessly in denial about everything from her social snobbery to the wisdom of her wardrobe choices.
At first this character seems like one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads, her amusing close-mindedness a product of privilege and repressed sexuality. Yet the more we learn about Susan’s troubled son, Simon, and his history of mental illness and violent outbursts, the less we’re sure where Unsuspecting Susan is heading.
When the plot twist arrives, it not only derails Susan, but the play itself. Permutt can tease out the subtleties of village and family politics with a light touch; when he abandons this fertile ground for a topic that’s supposed to be shocking and timely (hint: Al Qaeda), the story loses its clarity and sense of scale.
As Susan, Imrie displays superb timing and a deadpan delivery that could freeze out a mortician. Unfortunately, even a performer this surefooted can’t find her way through Permutt’s overgrown plot and underdeveloped text, despite able direction by Lisa Forrell.
One-person plays always require a certain amount of audience participation. In this case, Susan wants to be forgiven for not admitting the dark truth about Simon. Essentially, she’s asking the audience to be conscious of something she herself refuses to acknowledge. We wait in vain for Susan to struggle with her worldview, so we can be surprised or moved by her. Eventually, her obliviousness isn’t dramatic—merely exhausting. As a theatrical strategy, keeping Susan unsuspecting backfires, turning the intimacy of the tiny East 59th Street theater and Imrie’s performance into a strangely claustrophobic experience.