A four-play series of new works commissioned by Arlington’s Signature Theater debuts with “In the Garden,” a nicely offbeat and irreverent piece by playwright Norman Allen that takes a swipe at social, sexual and religious norms. Underwritten by the Hilmar Tharpe Sallee Charitable Trust, it will be followed by the other three in as many seasons.
A baby-faced college kid (Steven Eskay) finds himself the accommodating love interest of a quartet of urbanites who are drawn in part to his refreshing innocence, inquisitive nature and cryptic spiritual side. That the four are friends as well as married or engaged couples sets up a time bomb that explodes on cue.
The first bedmate is the youngster’s college philosophy professor, John (Michael Kramer), who is needing emotional and physical comfort. From John’s library of confusing textbooks, the boy selects a Bible that he begins to devour, well, religiously, and which speaks to him in loud and profound ways. He becomes almost Christ-like.
Others tempted by his enigmatic charms are John’s friend Walter (Jerry Richardson), an arrogant executive, and John’s wife, Muriel (Amy McWilliams). All are selfishly bent on satisfying their own sexual needs with blatant disregard for his tender age. Only Walter’s fiancee, Lizzie (Rachel Gardner), seeks a platonic relationship.
Sensitively played by Eskay, the boy is the calm and angelic center in a storm of infidelity, a lamb among wolves. Or is he? His apparent quest for purity is belied by the glaring fact that he has boldly threatened to blackmail his professor about their tryst to obtain a better grade.
This is a smart, adroitly written and exceedingly dense play, filled with uncertainties and meandering intellectual threads that are manipulated nonstop. It is wisely kept to less than 90 minutes, sufficient time for playwright Allen to probe and ponder its timeless themes. The five-member cast delivers evenly.
Director Daniel De Raey has wisely turned down the metronome to allow the unhurried exploration of the various passions and conundrums. A large bed dominates James Kronzer’s stylish set, which is showcased nicely by Nancy Schertler’s lighting.