The rather wordy title that Jon Klein has chosen for his play, "Dimly Perceived Threats to the System," refers mostly to the assault facing that venerable, if embattled, institution known as the American family. Not, mind you , the newfangled social structure embracing gay people and single parents that some people call a family. No, we are talking here about the good, old-fashioned nuclear family of Mom, Dad, assorted children and maybe a goldfish or hamster for good measure. That's the subject dear to Klein's heart, and his slight, occasionally funny, never very probing play examines the slings and arrows that such families endure in our troubled times.

The rather wordy title that Jon Klein has chosen for his play, “Dimly Perceived Threats to the System,” refers mostly to the assault facing that venerable, if embattled, institution known as the American family. Not, mind you , the newfangled social structure embracing gay people and single parents that some people call a family. No, we are talking here about the good, old-fashioned nuclear family of Mom, Dad, assorted children and maybe a goldfish or hamster for good measure. That’s the subject dear to Klein’s heart, and his slight, occasionally funny, never very probing play examines the slings and arrows that such families endure in our troubled times.

Marlys Hauser (Heather Ehlers) is a corporate consultant with a gift for motivational speeches. She’s married to Josh (Tony Carreiro), a documentary filmmaker whose obsession is — you guessed it — the decline of family structure in America. They have a 13-year-old daughter, Christine (Heather Dawn) , who’s a typical adolescent —she pouts a lot and thinks herfolks don’t pay enough attention to her.

Everything seems to be moving along smoothly until everyone in the family starts seeing and hearing things that aren’t actually happening. Marlys thinks Josh wants to divorce her; Josh believes his tart producer, Megan (Colette Kilroy), hopes to sleep with him; Christina imagines her school therapist, Mr. Sykes (Bill Mondy), intends to lobotomize her. Soon, these “visions” begin to undermine the Hausers’ not-so-tranquil domesticity, and this model American family begins to fray at the edges.

Klein clearly loves this stuff, and he has lots of fun with it. In fact, so do audiences, for the playwright knows how to write a joke. After Josh haughtily upbraids Christina for her generation’s lack of ideals and social commitment, she devastatingly replies, “And what was the message of bell bottoms?” But “Dimly” doesn’t go much further. And the play’s saccharine conclusion can only be seen as a copout.

Director Mark Rucker, who’s had such great success at SCR with the classics (“The Triumph of Love,” “The Taming of the Shrew”), tries his best to compensate for the absence of real meaning, but his stylish touches — LED message boards flashing titles, Benny Goodman tunes for the transitions — are merely distractions. There is no shortage of style, only an absence of substance.

That’s particularly unfortunate given that this production boasts some fine performances. Ehlers’ Marlys is both poised and sympathetic, and Dawn is frighteningly convincing as the teenage Christine. Carreiro is a little too self-conscious as Josh, but Kilroy’s broad portrayal as Megan works well. Mondy’s take on the school counselor may be the best of the lot, for he turns a first-class nebbish into an endearingly addled character. Susan Marie Brecht has little to do as an aloof physician, yet when she’s transformed into Josh’s dying mother, she convincingly delivers some of the play’s funniest lines.

Lonnie Alcaraz’s lighting and Garth Hemphill’s sound design play important roles and are handled with care and intelligence.

Dimly Perceived Threats to the System

(COMEDY; SOUTH COAST REPERTORY SECOND STAGE; 161 SEATS; $ 43 TOP)

Production

COSTA MESA, Calif. A South Coast Repertory presentation of a play in two acts by Jon Klein. Directed by Mark Rucker.

Crew

Sets, Drew Boughton; costumes, Nephelie Andonyadis; lighting, Lonnie Rafael Alcaraz; sound, Garth Hemphill; stage manager, Randall K. Lum. Opened Sept. 25, 1998. Reviewed Sept. 26. Running time: 2 HOURS.

With

Marlys Hauser.....Heather Ehlers Josh Hauser.....Tony Carreiro Christine Hauser.....Heather Dawn Mr. Sykes.....Bill Mondy Megan Lone.....Colette Kilroy Dr. Grey.....Susan Marie Brecht
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