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SF Weekly, April 12, 2006


No Kidding

-- By Chole Veltman

Flawed but funny, Eric Coble's play is brighter in idea than execution

Small children are at the heart of Eric Coble's Bright Ideas. They're so small, in fact, that they can't be seen. The absence of little people is quite remarkable when you consider that Coble's drama revolves around one middle-class American couple's effort to get their three-year-old into the right preschool, and that the majority of the scenes take place in environments like a playground, a classroom, and a full-blown kiddies' birthday party complete with balloons and a guy in a beaver costume. But that's precisely the point: This play about children has no children in it because it's not really about children at all. It's about a bunch of demented parents.

Attitudes toward parenting have changed radically over the last hundred years or so. "Time was, you had to have children — more hands on the farm and all that," said writer Larry Smith in an article on last week. "Those days, and that necessity, are long gone." These days, especially in the wealthy West, the business of raising kids has evolved into something like an elaborate, expensive, and time-consuming hobby. With the parental antics of celebrities like Madonna, Angelina, and the Beckhams becoming the subject of popular discourse, and marketers increasingly appealing to Gen-Xers' desire to give "the best" to their offspring, child-rearing — at least in some circles — has become as much about creating the right image as nurturing the upstanding citizens of tomorrow.

For a generation of moms and dads haunted by stories like that of Citibank CEO Sanford I. Weill, accused a few years back of helping get his star telecom analyst's kids into an elite Manhattan preschool in exchange for a better rating on AT&T, and for whom the must-have baby accessory is the $730 Bugaboo Frog stroller (it was featured on Sex and the City, after all), Bright Ideas taps into the sinister forces at work behind modern parenting. Over the course of one and a half hours, the playwright follows the fortunes of Genevra and Joshua Bradley, a pair of desperados willing to go all the way — and I do mean all the way — to ensure that their son gets the start he deserves. This entails securing a place, no matter the cost, at Bright Ideas Early Development Academy, the preschool de choix for the cappuccino crowd. It's probably just as well that the children in the play aren't real, but are merely suggested by the five adult characters talking to the ether in slightly condescending voices. For this is an R-rated show, and what begins as a fluffy sitcom along Dharma & Greg lines soon unravels into a bloodbath spoof worthy of The Sopranos — or, as the playwright would have it, Macbeth.

Coble's decision to interweave lines, character names, and plot points from Shakespeare throughout his text seems like a brilliantly wacky way to emphasize the satire of parental insanity. Like Alexander Pope's sendup of the epic form in The Rape of the Lock, the incongruity created by contrasting the blood on Lady Macbeth's hands with the pesto on Genevra's (as she attempts to cook dinner for her yuppie colleague Denise) ought to engender laughs as well as expose the beliefs expressed by the characters for the delusions they really are. Unfortunately, I found myself wishing that Coble had sought inspiration from Tony and Carmela Soprano rather than Shakespeare's ambitious thane and his bloodthirsty wife. For Bright Ideas' episodic structure, numerous cliches, and heavy-handed comedy would doubtless work better on the tube than on the stage. (It's just as well that the author is working on a screen version of his play.)

The collaborators in Shotgun Players' production hustle to make Coble's satire work. Zapping expertly between various roles — including the Tina Brown-like Denise and a frumpy preschool teacher in crocheted vest, red turtleneck, ill-fitting denim skirt, and brown sandals — Melanie Case embodies the bonkers spirit of Coble's play. The Killing My Lobster performance style (Case is a core member of the comedy troupe) seems like the perfect vehicle to carry the outlandish social lampoon. Anna Ishida's performance as Genevra is more understated, yet features some marvelous neurotic moments. In one of the few really strong scenes, a trio of child specialists bombards the frazzled mom with sales pitches, convincing her that paying for expensive speech therapy sessions, drama classes, and sports coaching is essential to being a good parent. Beyond the acting, scenic designer James J. Fenton's lurid, 1970s-themed domestic landscape makes fun of Gen-Xers' faddish retro tastes while simultaneously pointing to the gulf between parenting styles today and those of the previous generation. Meanwhile, director Mary Guzmán's opening scene depicting a light fog (or puff of dry ice) hovering over a patch of lawn astutely suggests that the high drama we are about to witness amounts to little more than a small, low cloud.

Despite Shotgun Players' efforts, I couldn't help feeling that Coble's play is brighter in idea than execution. From Joshua's hackneyed interest in the trappings of pseudo-Zen spiritualism to Genevra's compulsive cellphone use, the one-dimensional Bradleys are as unlikable as they are contrived. Due to clumsily handled motivations, their actions lack credibility, even within the play's zany comic scope. The Macbeth allusions feel similarly forced. With pastiches of the witches' and banquet scenes from Macbeth slapped haphazardly on top of references to Golden Pony Merit Awards, 5-year-old 6K runs, and nightmares about ducky wading pools, Shakespeare's tragedy serves only to highlight the dramaturgical inadequacies of Cobles' comedy. A line like "Is this a mortar and pestle which I see before me?" pretty much says it all.

On the homepage of one Montessori preschool's Web site (an organization with six locations in Northern California), a little girl with long hair and a sincere face poses like the Mona Lisa. "We believe that each child is a masterpiece," reads the caption underneath her picture, one of several amateurish photographs of children mimicking famous paintings. These preschoolers, like those in Coble's play, are invisible, submerged under a glossy veneer of warped marketing kitsch. When faced with such images, Bright Ideas succeeds in making one vital (and seemingly obvious) point: Preschool and child care efforts should focus on children.

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