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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review
Suburban Blight
by Laura Hitchcock

When a journalist told A. R. "Pete" Gurney that his subtle plays about 20th century WASP ethnicity conveyed so much between the lines, he replied that Easterners lived largely between the lines. In Suburban Blight, a trio of one-acts presented by Big Red Productions at the McCadden Place Theatre, Gurney abandons the sly reticence of a lifetime for a refreshing plunge into the theatre of the absurd.

Director Craig Carlisle weaves them together in that overworked adjective seamlessly, casting the audience as members of a town hall meeting addressed by the characters of the first two plays. Amy Scribner plays Bunny Stuntz, title character in The Rape of Bunny Stuntz, as a pudgy bottle blonde with a power complex, chairing her first meeting. Scribner unerringly manifests one of those appalling control freaks you can't take your eyes off, even as you're willing to let them do the detail work. We learn Bunny has forgotten the key to the box containing all the meeting data. Wilma, a devastating study in timidity created by Crista Flanagan, tries to help her, as does Howie (Steven Houska), a deliciously gangly aide de camp. There's an unseen mystery man in the balcony who is alternately ominous and alluring.

Freud says there are no accidents. Bunny's accidentally forgotten key opens the way to a meeting adjournment which deteriorates into a hedonistic melee. When the key is thrown to Bunny by the stranger, the box she opens is empty and it's not surprising that the interloper, whom she denies having met, is the man she slinks off to meet. Wilma takes over the meeting on a freer note, a harbinger of things to come.

In a concept echoing political and cultural headlines, Gurney's tale of a Pandora's box, a cover-up, and the break-down of a conventional Puritan structure is a parable of 20th century America. This play is the weakest of the trio, despite solid acting by Scribner, a talent to watch in Flanagan and perfect support from Houska. Gurney's build-up is slow and a line about Bunny's death at the end doesn't get the production clarity it deserves.

Medea is hot this season but Gurney puts a unique spin on her story in The Golden Fleece. Preppy Bill and his wife Betty, dressed in the mismatched understatement of the very rich who disdain both fashion and aesthetics, are best friends with Jason and Medea. The story of the flaming dress Medea sends to Jason's new love Glaucae has never been told so vividly. Bill tells that one and Betty, sick of hearing about his admiration for the unfaithful Jason and lust for the gorgeous Glaucae during the trio's motel room romp, tops him with her devotion to Medea and her decision to wake up Medea's children and send them home to Mama. We all know what a great idea that was!

Celebrity worship and emulation is Gurney's theme here, as Bob and Betty talk of reacting to those two beautiful people who are in touch with something we can never touch. The most accessible and dramatic of the trio, the play is well served by Michael Leydon Campbell's Bill who skates with hearty breeziness on the silvery ice of Macho American Style and Elizabeth Cantu, whose deft Betty starts out as a hands-on craftswoman and winds up as a stripped-down virago.

The Problem takes a surreal spin into the 1960s-70s arena of race relations. A pipe-smoking absent-minded Professor (Bjorn Johnson) hasn't had sex with his beautiful young wife (Hillary Straney) for five years but doesn't seem to notice she is pregnant. He nobly deigns to accept the child as his own. Then Gurney's twists and turns begin. The Wife says what if the child is black. The Husband confesses that he has disguised himself as a Negro to make love to her every week because he thought it would be exciting for both of them. Then he learns she was always on to him and enlisted a look-alike to replace her in his bed while she performed her civic duty to right social injustice by having sex with everyone who made less than $5,000 a year. The encounter-group ending is also emblematic of that era.

Gurney's trademark deftness depicts these academic explorers as bland and complacent, wandering naively through the south of the ghetto world they've discovered. It's refreshing to see the playwright unleash the steamy id of his normally proper people. After a lifetime of sly WASP-watching, he's had enough of the sidelines. Long may he rave!

Editor's Note: Another rather different Gurney Play, The Fourth Wall recently concluded a successful Off-Broadway run.

Playwright: A. R. Gurney
Director: Craig Carlisle
Cast: Amy Scribner (Bunny), Crista Flanagan (Wilma), Steven Houska (Howie), Michael Leydon Campbell (Bill), Elizabeth Cantu (Betty), Bjorn Johnson (Husband), Hillary Straney (Wife)
Set Design: Jeff Robinson
Lighting Design: Andrea Housh
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Running Dates: January 10-February 16
Where: McCadden Place Theatre, 1157 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles, ph: (323) 655-TKTS.
Reviewed by Laura Hitchcock on January 10.
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