Brit thesp Celia Imrie (“Calendar Girls”) makes her U.S. stage debut as a well-heeled small-town Englishwoman whose fragile peace of mind crumbles when her son becomes the prime suspect in the suicide bombing of a Jewish restaurant in London. Imrie gives an affecting, tempered portrayal of “Unsuspecting Susan” in Stewart Permutt’s darkly comic work, whose structural parameters can’t wholly provide for the complexity of the distressing, present-day subject matter.
In a pleated skirt and pearls, mild-mannered Susan fills us in on the daily players and gossip in her village life. But what quickly emerges as the dishiest dirt and her most consuming preoccupation is the psychological instability of son Simon, now in his early 30s and living in London with an Egyptian roommate.
Susan’s speedy singsong delivery and the script’s shuffle between Simon’s premorbid despair and the goings-on of his mother’s drama club, barely pausing for breath, clue us in to the woman’s denial, as well as the deep well of her loneliness and loss.
As the plot thickens, we watch with regret as sirens blare and two nonspeaking police officers ransack Susan’s house, leaving her with the material remains of Simon’s childhood in three boxes marked “evidence.” We feel for Susan as she is thrust into a governmental terror investigation, neighbors turn on her and her house is vandalized. But the issues explored are too intricate and diffuse to be handled in this purely narrative structure. The heart-racing, pulse-jumping, visceral reactions called for here never fully materialize.
Because of Susan’s apparent composure and very British method of coping, it is easy to miss some of the important clues laid out as to where the play is headed — or more importantly, the weight of her son’s past and her pain. Director Lisa Forrell would have been wise to explore other avenues to expose Susan’s fragility, beyond language, perhaps through physicality. In addition, the glaring scene transitions call more attention to themselves than they should and feel either invasive or awkwardly abrupt.
Imrie paints a believable psychological portrait of a woman who, after a lifetime of living an intentionally small and sheltered existence (“I try to avoid London these days. … You wouldn’t believe the people I saw in Harrods last time I went. As mummy would say, ‘Strictly NQOCD’ … Not Quite Our Class, Darling.”) is forced into a personal nightmare exemplifying the mind-boggling perils of today’s world.
his subject matter might have been more successfully realized with other flesh-and-blood characters: with portrayals of Simon, who we find out converted to Islam; the well-groomed, polite Jamal, Simon’s roommate; and Susan’s fellow villagers, with their different reactions to her tragedy.
This horrifying scenario is rich and relevant territory for a playwright to mine by exploring possible explanations to the questions raised here — from the profoundly insular to the broadly political — but in this case both Susan and the audience are left suspended and begging for more.