AS THE LIGHTS COME UP on the opening scene of Strokes suburban housewife Lily wheels her husband onstage to a melodious Muzak version of "Send in the Clowns." The bronzed baby booties and plastic flowers on the coffee table have been freshly dusted, plastic slipcovers protect all the furniture, and a large banner proclaims "Welcome Home, Daddy." But Daddy cannot hear the chirping cardinals or see the sunlight on this bright spring day. A stroke has left him a vegetable, and created the conflict of a black and bizarre comedy about an American family gone wild. Don't worry," Eily coos comfortingly into the ear of her zombie-like spouse, "these things happen to everybody."
The American Reportory Theatre's premiere of this new play is as entertaining as it is odd. Mitch has spent most of his life cheating on his employers on his wife on the IRS. But by the time his family discovers his crimes, he is saved from punishment by his comatose state. At first, wife Lily refuses to believe that her husband of thirty years is such a scum. When she can no longer escape the awful truth, she moans. "All I have left is a corpse that betrayed me." Daughter Marshal takes aim at her mother with Freud and fires accusations of resistance represscion and denial. Then the two plot Daddy's death, considering all the options. We can't scare him to death vegetables are fearless. Son Teddy joins the scheme enlisting the help of his moronic girlfriend. While never appearing onstage, a monstrous nurse named Emerald registers her indignation from time to time with a violent thump on the kitchen door.
Shirley Wilbur as Lily provides most of the play's humor. Her cackling laugh and marvelous expression convey her character's wifty lunacy. Everything she knows she has learned from television; she rants and raves about the savagery of the Third World as she plans to boil her husband "like a lobster--lobsters don't feel pain." Guy Strauss as Mitch, the butt of most of these jokes, plays the vegetable (or lump, or carrot) brilliantly; when he begins to recover towards the end, his twitches and moans are appallingly funny.
Son Teddy (Mark Driscoll) stands to inherit little but his mother's idiotic grin. His father never let him go even to the bathroom alone, but stood over him while he peed and demanded that he learn multiplication tables. Driscoll, who substituted for Thomas Derrah on opening night, spends most of the play gazing stupidly at his even stupider girlfriend Lorraine (Maggie Topkis): both play their roles with a frighteningly convincing ditziness. Topkins swills beers and chomps on gum picked off the floor as she sends out for pizza to swell her already-ample girth.
THE ONLY REAL DISAPPOINTMENT on the cast is Lise Hilbolt as Marsha. Since actress Cherry Jones left Cambridge, the A R T has been without an ingenue, they should have looked a little longer before picking this one. She's pretty but she sure can't act. Her role, to be sure is ill-defined, but she misses every opportunity to find humor in what could be hilarious lines.
Strokests often excrutiatingly funny, but the playwright's intentions remain obscure. Leslie Glass writes dialogue as absurd as a cross between lonesco and "Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman," but the one-liners and hilarious situations lead nowhere. As a satire on the American family, the play never succeeds on the level of Albee's American Dream although the relentless reinforcement of American stereotypes leads us to expect as much. But for black comedy Strokes can't be beaten.