At his best, playwright Eric Coble has a penchant for skewering human foibles ranging from avarice to xenophobia. Armed with a biting wit and a strong sense of moral urgency, he easily lays claim to being Northeast Ohio's own Jonathan Swift.
His latest theatrical Gulliver is Bright Ideas, which is the first locally written script to receive a full production at the Cleveland Play House in decades. After noting the absurdity of preschools that fashion themselves, in both admissions standards and curriculum, after Ivy League universities, the ever-diligent satirist was inspired to conjure up the Bradleys, a thirtysomething couple straight outta Abercrombie & Fitch. Their raison d'être is to ensure their three-year-old's future by getting him (by any means necessary) into the lofty environs of the Bright Ideas Early Childhood Development Academy -- whose motto is "The future of the United States is on our playground."
The resulting work, Bright Ideas, is laden with enough guffaws taken at the expense of yuppie megalomania to supply a month's worth of Saturday Night Lives: Mother Bradley waffles on whether it's good form to commit homicide to secure a space for Babikins. She reads out loud from a children's picture book that ends with a mother lion saying to her cub, "I'll hunt and I'll kill to scrape out a morsel for you, my baby." Thus, a nursery tale becomes the impetus for murder most foul. There's a wonderful debate on the propriety of making poisonous pasta for the mama of another preschooler: "One thing I learned from Martha Stewart is you don't poison the guests."
A half-hour into the proceedings, however, the chuckles come more slowly as it becomes apparent that the script is altogether not ready for prime time. Coble, unable to harness his comic anarchy in a cogent manner, has created no flesh-and-blood characters with whom the audience can empathize. The Bradleys, for example, have no consistency, no inner lives; they are the plastic pawns of revue sketches.
Coble makes a fatal miscalculation by trying to impose a Macbeth parallel onto his story. The new-age witches, the murdered Mrs. Malcolm as a ghost dripping with lethal pesto, the attempt to compare a terrorized preschool with a roiling Scotland all reek of grad-school hubris.
By the time Daddy Bradley bites a life-sized chipmunk at an apocalyptic birthday party, the play has spun completely out of control.
By the end of the first act, flop sweat can be seen on the foreheads of the cast members as they endeavor to keep the play from dying from exhaustion.
And they do give it their best shot. On the bright side, Andrew May shows why he is Cleveland's most adept, charismatic actor. He begins puppy-eager and hungry, Macbeth in a Brooks Brothers suit, forever pondering ways to circumvent those who would stand in his son's way. When his facade implodes, we see the toad lurking inside the prince. At a parent-teacher conference, drunk and decimated, he sprawls over a kiddie chair like a broken marionette: It's a blend of comedy and pathos worthy of Peter Sellers.
As his wife, Susan Ericksen manages to breathe conviction into a character who degenerates from a perky Mrs. Partridge into a homicidal Bonnie Parker holding a gun on the audience, threatening to blow their brains out if they don't sing "Happy Birthday" to her son. The other three performers (Chip DuFord, Kate Hodge, and Elizabeth Rainer) adroitly embody a gallery of scholastic parasites, urban trolls, and suburban bumpkins.
Director David Colacci does his considerable best to resuscitate a severely traumatized script. But he is constantly sabotaged by the scenic dirty work of Pavel Dobrusky; his pretentious, clumsy sets have undermined more plays than has the casting of directors' boyfriends. Here, mixing surrealism with doll-house kitschiness, he pummels the show's merry-go-round metaphor into a lazy Susan monstrosity. Bright Ideas may be a hell of a carousel ride, but unfortunately, at the end you wish you'd gotten off sooner.