Seeing a show advertised as a “dark comedy,” one would expect a certain degree of humor. Though the production of Bright Ideas by Eric Coble – now on stage through November 20 at Circle Theatre – is certainly dark, it unfortunately could use a bit more comedy.
The play is about Genevra (Norah Sweeney Villanueva) and Joshua (Andy Baldwin) – two parents with high expectations for their son, Mac. Early in the show, they have managed to get Mac on a waiting list for the most prestigious pre-school in town: Bright Ideas. When a co-worker of Genevra’s – Lynzie (Morgan McClure) – has a son who has been accepted to Bright Ideas, Joshua and Genevra concoct a scheme to ensure little Mac gets to take his place. The solution: murder. At the end of act one, the two parents have effectively sold their souls all in the name of good parenting. Though everything they do is for Mac, the two characters ironically devolve through the course of the play into one of the worst set of parents. Joshua, seemingly remorseful for his crime, has become a belligerent alcoholic. Even worse is Genevra, who like a true Lady Macbeth, executes one devious scheme after another to secure the best for her son.
The allusions to Macbeth are no accident; Genevra even wears a Scottish-like plaid skirt (thanks to costumes by Robin Armstrong), and there are references throughout the show to Shakespeare’s play. At one point in act two, Joshua even enacts a version of Lady Macbeth’s infamous sleep-walking scene as he tries to scrub off his hands the poisonous pesto concoction used to kill Lynzie.
The Scottish play is a serious tragedy. The problem with this production of Bright Ideas, is that it can’t decide if it wants to be tragedy or comedy. Under the direction of Robin Armstrong, the play falls too closely to tragedy, making a serious effort to portray the darker aspects of the story. Like Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, the characters Joshua and Genevra follow a similar trajectory towards destruction in pursuit of their somewhat irrational desires, or at least irrational expectations. As the play progresses, Joshua and Genevra turn into the obsessive and overbearing parents they encounter in the opening scene, but they also become increasingly less likable. We do not ever really empathize with them along the way, and you can’t help but think that a little more comedy could have softened us up towards the principals.
Nonetheless, the play is not entirely without its humorous moments. One of the more enjoyable scenes comes near the end of act one as Genevra and Joshua have Lynzie over for dinner. The physicality and timing of the characters as they try to convince each other to go through with the deadly scheme is hilarious.
Overall, the performances should be praised – especially the numerous characters performed by the versatile Leslie Patrick, John Venable, and Morgan McClure. In the role of Joshua, Andy Baldwin gives a performance that is physically energetic and sometimes downright goofy, but he knows how to capture our attention and bring out the humor from the text. Even though his character is guilty of murder, he is likable nonetheless, a bit of a weakling who gets plowed over by Generva. As Joshua’s domineering wife, Nora Sweeney Villanueva gives an impressive performance. She does not create an especially sympathetic character, but she does effectively embody the transition from well-intentioned mother to gun-wielding psycho.