A familiar phrase, “attending the best schools” used to refer to high schools and colleges. Playwright Eric Coble carries this a step further in “Bright Ideas,” showing the hysterical, obsessive parental struggle to place children in the finest preschools because “whoever they are on their fourth birthday, that’s who they’ll be the rest of their lives.” Coble makes so many shrewd, accurate observations about preschool mania that he can be forgiven for some unnecessary and overstressed plot developments.
At the beginning, Joshua (Bo Foxworth) and Genevra (Pat Caldwell) seem anxious but within a normal emotional range. We can identify with their desire to get son Mac into the top school, Bright Ideas, because “98% of the graduates went on to get into Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth.”
This fertile ground is a rich territory for satire, and it’s disappointing when Joshua and Genevra plot to murder colleague Denise (April Ortiz) so her child will be eliminated and Mac can gain admittance. We want to shout, “You don’t need to do this — the material is strong enough without it,” but sure enough, Denise is dispatched with poisoned pesto and a protracted, slapstick scene ensues while they decide how to cover up the crime.
After that, the play’s authentic soul kicks in, and Coble concentrates on Genevra’s increasingly psychotic drive to make certain little Mac is the star student at his new academic home. Caldwell shows the mother’s deepening competitiveness and jealousy, along with her worry about Mac’s inability to throw a ball or achieve perfection in pronunciation. She embodies the millions of parents who lust after academic recognition for their offspring when setting her sights on the school’s Golden Pony award, and it’s amusing to see her parked at the Internet investigating the boy’s DNA ID kit.
As Joshua, Foxworth brings out every subtle value of the script. A masterful comic, he retains vulnerability even after planning Denise’s demise. It’s natural to empathize with him when he realizes that anxiety over his son’s education has destroyed his marriage. Unfortunately, Joshua deteriorates into a conventional alcoholic and the character’s complexities disappear, but Foxworth keeps him alive with inventive line readings and gestures.
Ortiz handles six roles brilliantly. She pulls off a hilarious and difficult moment as victim Denise, falling face first into the lethal pasta.
Ortiz is notably funny as an enunciation specialist, and as a Bright Ideas executive expressing terror because teachers are being blackmailed, injured with leaf blowers and finding their car brakes cut. This precipitates a darkly effective moment when Genevra threateningly comments, “I don’t think teachers … have anything to worry about, as long as they’re doing a good job.”
Larry Raben and Maura Vincent are ideally cast as a couple caught in the my-child-is-better syndrome, portraying five parts that differentiate skillfully between the various characters.
Dwight Richard Odle’s set moves dining rooms, supermarket sections and kitchens fluidly around, and Paulie Jenkins’ lighting adds excitement to the thunder and lightning sequences. Best of all, director Andrew Barnicle treats the situations with realism, no matter how extreme they become, carefully building up Caldwell’s ruthless Lady Macbeth villainy so we can accept her escalating madness. His staging of a scene when Caldwell’s Genevra, while on an airplane, works out a murder scheme by cell phone, is particularly memorable.
The climax, 4-year-old Mac’s balloon-packed birthday party, resonates through Caldwell’s chilling speech about today’s wildly combative parental priorities: “I am a mother! Anything that comes between me and my child’s happiness, I mow it down, I blow it up, I stuff it full of poison. I do what it takes because that’s how big my love is!”