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Immaterial Breach

In Dimly Perceived Threats to the System, What Poses the Most Danger to the Nuclear Family is the Unknown

You Know the Drill: Dana Whipkey, Ashley Fishell, and Joan Weber round out the typical dysfunctional family in Dimly Perceived Threats to the System.

By John Barry | Posted 1/22/2003

Dimly Perceived Threats to the System

At the Vagabond Players through Feb. 9

Dimly Perceived Threats to the System takes us back to 1995, when presidential candidates spent all their time worrying about attacks on the nuclear family. Weapons of mass destruction included Bill Clinton, nose rings, and Kurt Cobain. Ritalin, religion, and personal contrition were supposed to be the answers. No one knew exactly what that nuclear family was, but it was in a lot of trouble. It didn't seem to work, but no one knew why.

That subject may have aged a little since then. In a typical family drama of the day, a dysfunctional family comes complete with nutty characters, subplots included, plus a lot of camp and some infidelity. The plot keeps flapping its wings but generally doesn't get off the ground. A lot happens on stage, but nothing happens. The characters shed their skins constantly, but don't develop much. Then there's a lot of crazy stuff and maybe a little baby-boomer tenderness at the end. Most of this holds true for Threats. But it's a good play, and the Vagabond Players make it even better with a small but polished ensemble.

Both playwright Jon Klein and the excellent cast of this production breathe life into this formula. Klein does his part by adding several dimensions to the dysfunction. Threats doesn't limit itself to the living room; a spare set manages to inject a level of paranoid fantasy into this unraveling family. Digressions and lighting shifts, as well as constantly shifting settings, leave the audience almost as insecure as the actors. But the acting is what really brings this to life. Six excellent performances and great chemistry combine to turn this tiny triangle of the Hauser family into a hilarious, slightly nightmarish network of insecurities.

Managerial consultant Marlys Hauser (Joan Weber) is the matriarch of the family. Her opening monologue comes in the form of a professional presentation, where she invokes the cutthroat language of corporate America. Marlys is less successful as the hapless manager of her own family, though. In the second scene she has a paranoid vision of her husband telling her that the family has to downsize, and she's going to be let go. What we notice here--and at other points in the play--is that the language of corporate America eerily fits her family system.

Marlys' husband, Josh Hauser (Dana Whipkey), is a filmmaker in the process of shooting a film about the hypocrisy of the American Family. He's also in the throes of a baby-boomer midlife crisis, so plagued by his own moral floundering that even infidelity seems to be a drag. His social consciousness keeps getting mixed up by his somewhat tawdry personal life.

The younger generations, meanwhile, seem to have more of a knack for negotiating this bleak landscape. The Hausers' teenage daughter Christine (Ashley Fishell) slouches like a petty dictator: depressed, pouting, furious at nothing in particular. Megan Lone (Jaina Hiral) is the suave, predatory, and sexuality-indeterminate film producer whose only constant in life is her cat. Christine and Megan, in their own ways, have created fire walls; it's difficult to tell whether they're on the attack or in retreat. Christine explodes; Megan smolders. They both have become adept at manipulating the elder Hausers.

In the end, though, this play isn't about nutty characters. What's more significant is the overwhelming sense of insecurity that has invaded their professional and personal lives. They react in different ways--paranoia, betrayal, rage, or indifference. It doesn't even seem to matter whether things are going well or not; in this shifting, unstable terrain, everyone's terrified of being abandoned or betrayed. It's a comedy, so don't expect Edward Albee, but themes like these resonate throughout.

In this play, characters are as afraid of what might happen as they are of what does happen. That serves to blur lines, as paranoid fantasies and the banality of everyday life appear to mix on different levels. At some points, director James Kinstle seems willing to let these ambiguities take care of themselves; at others, he underscores them with dramatic shifts in lighting. Yes, the plot bumps from one crisis to the next and the ending is a little formulaic. But it resonates in strange ways. And the most sobering revelation seems to hold true in any economic or social context: You give people brushes and they'll paint themselves into a corner.

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