By Patrick Hurley
The art of dysfunction is taken to dizzyingly extreme heights in Mary Laws new play Blueberry Toast, making its world premiere at the Echo Theater Company.
Set in modern day suburbia, in the bright and cheery kitchen of seemingly idyllic couple Walt (Albert Dayan) and Barb (Jacqueline Wright). The tone of the piece, right from the top, is that of a 1950s sitcom. A loving husband comes down to the breakfast table, and his slightly servile wife is ready to wait on him. This morning, when Barb asks Walt what he wants for breakfast his answer is “blueberry toast.” In what was nothing more than a misspoken breakfast order, which she gladly obliges him with , The very fabric of their marriage starts to come undone.
And as the morning turns bleak, their two children Jack (Michael Sturgis) and Jill (Alexandra Freeman) interrupt the tension to present for their parents, scenes from a play they’re writing. The scenes with Jack and Jill seem to work only to stop the situations between Barb and Walt for an entertaining interlude. Like a commercial break from a television show. And once the children leave to continue working on their play, the tension kicks right back in. And the situation goes from bad to worse, to somewhat shocking, all within the span of just over an hour.
Playwright Mary Laws has written an absurd, delightfully twisted American tragedy. Her dialogue is razor-sharp, and her situations go farther than anyone would think reasonable, and yet she has built a world where she can nearly justify every off-the-wall and irrational action that occurs. Amanda Knehans wonderfully cheerful scenic design is the perfect incongruous setting for this play. The contradiction of container and content is almost poetic. Director Dustin Wills gets most of it just right. The heightened nature of the world, the switch from sitcom to hard-hitting realism, the absurdity of the situation, and the absolute necessity of committed performances. He holds it all together with outrageous panache.
There are many reasons why this production is successful, one of the most important of them is the performances. As Walt, Albert Dayan is terrific. There is something unlikable and yet everyman about him. He seethes contempt, but he’s able to stave it off until it’s necessary to unleash it, and when he does, it’s beautifully vile. Jacqueline Wright is sensational as Barb. She plays doting wife and primal tigress with equal earnestness and brio, sometimes at the same moment. She goes so far, and pulls back so successfully that we are able to empathize tremendously with her. Together, these two actors create a very disturbing dance, that like a terrible accident happening right in front of you, you simply cannot avert your eyes from. Nor should you. As Jack and Jill, Michael Sturgis and Alexandra Freeman are also worth noting. The musical numbers they put together for the play they’re writing are nearly as absurd as the situation happening between their parents, and it’s a joy to watch them zealously perform so badly.
The highly absurd situation of a perfect-looking couple slowly devolving into an even more dysfunctional George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf seems absurd enough, but this play doesn’t stop there. Oh no. By the end of the seventy-five minute show the audience will be just as out of breath as the two actors, after watching the deconstruction of their marriage, civility, and perhaps even humanity itself.
By Mary Laws
Directed by Dustin Wills
Sept 17-Oct. 24
Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90039