Combining the stuff of light comedy (a loopy wife, celebrity infatuation) with heavy topics (U.S. imperialism, torture), Bruce Norris’ “The Unmentionables” gets an East Coast go-round at Yale Rep following its premiere last summer at Chicago’s Steppenwolf. Helmer Anna D. Shapiro keeps the action lively, the actors likable and the serious themes just enough at arm’s length to keep spirits high. Following the playwright’s well-received “The Pain and the Itch,” there’s Gotham potential for this deft satire, which manages to sufficiently entertain as it tries to score political points.
Play takes place in the rustic-chic digs (stylishly designed by Todd Rosenthal) of a fictional West African country filled with delusional American tycoons, celebrity do-gooders and Christian charity workers. Powered by their money, their fame or their God, this new generation of spa-treated ugly Americans has trouble understanding the country they are there to exploit, help or save.
But the real Third Worlders have agendas of their own. They include a political dynamo (a regal and vivacious Ora Jones), a blase youth who is all about sneakers and Sonys (a very funny Jon Hill, who opens the show by telling the audience to flee such drivel while they have a chance), and a stoned and pontificating doctor (a blissfully dry Kenn E. Head), who has seen foreigners come and go with historic inevitability.
An actor as well as a playwright, Norris creates thesp-friendly characters, giving them all their moments while rooting them in Reality Lite and allowing them more dimension than one would expect. Up to a comic point anyway.
Paul Vincent O’Connor’s gentleness plays against type and invites sympathy for the wealthy American businessman. Brian Hutchison gives Christian missionary Dave the sweet resolve of one who has heard all the Jesus japes before. However, his frazzled fiancee Jane (Kelly Hutchinson), a former actress disillusioned by her TV fame, is bit of a stretch to believe.
Though Nancy, the businessman’s over-indulged and hyper-chatty wife is beyond off-beat, Lisa Emery gives such a nutso perf she wins you over with her dazzling array of comic tics, screams and whoops.
The play’s unmentionable though predictable conclusion is saved by Norris’ wise-ass end note, allowing the comedy — and the audience — to feel smart, satisfied and more than a little guilty.