It’s one thing to balance a drama about fighting parents with the inflamed sensitivities of their 12-year-old daughter, who is about to have sex with their 21-year-old lodger. It’s quite another to write it as a comedy. The unexpected laughs in Jeremy Herrin’s zinger of a production reveals “Spur of the Moment” as an exquisitely painful comedy of embarrassment. It’s a seriously impressive debut, all the more startling because playwright Anya Reiss is just 18 years old.
Almost an antidote to the hyperglycemia of “High School Musical,” Reiss’ quasi-teen-dream play actually kicks off with Delilah (entrancingly self-assured Shannon Tarbert, also making her debut) and her friends recording a number from the franchise in her bedroom. But they’re at the pivotal age where they not only squeal with delight at the prospect of Harry Potter movies but also at the sexual potential of flaky but hot 21-year-old lodger Daniel (James McArdle).
On Max Jones’ pitch-perfect, two-tiered set, upstairs ecstatic harmonies are contrasted with downstairs marital discord. Parents Vicky (volatile, end-of-tether Sharon Small) and Nick (comically pedantic Kevin Doyle) are bickering about tea vs. coffee. Glistening with spite, their childishly illogical baiting of one another raises laughs of shaming recognition, but things rapidly turn nasty as the real subject of their fighting erupts.
Nick ricochets between apologizing for having had an affair with his boss and then having been sacked, and exploding with exasperation because Vicky cannot or will not forgive him. Even easygoing Daniel is drawn into their risky game-playing as Vicky flaunts the notion that she and he might be carrying on.
Having raised the temperature to the point of comic nervousness with everyone in the house behaving very unwisely, Reiss creates a scene thrillingly rife with undercurrents. Delilah, her parents and Daniel are all on a sofa in the darkened sitting room, failing to behave well while watching a DVD. Under the cover of her parents’ mutual self-obsession, Delilah suddenly kisses Daniel on the mouth and the dramatic heat skyrockets.
Ensuing scenes are a younger, reverse spin on “American Beauty,” but with greater danger. Frighteningly determined Delilah is in the throes of a sexual obsession with older Daniel, who is on the brink of taking advantage of her. With events threatening to spiral out of control, the laughs now catch in the audience’s throats, and it’s at this point that Herrin’s production shows its strength. There are toxic levels of tension — How far will they go? Will Daniel’s girlfriend find out? What will her parents do when the truth comes out? — but he dares to present the scenario as razor-sharp farce.
The comic speed of the action — eavesdropping, snatched corridor conversations, exquisitely timed entrances — never comes, however, at the expense of the sense of (ir)responsibility that stalks the play. Indeed, as the mood turns ever darker, that governing sense is increasingly embodied by the characters, all of whose thoughts and motives are made grippingly legible by Herrin’s actors.
Intricate, inappropriate family behavior may be the stuff of soap opera, but Reiss’ narrative grip, for the most part, ensures it’s considerably more than that. At its best, the play keeps audiences on a knife-edge poised between fascination and horror. That balancing act suggests a degree of detachment that indicates Reiss is not a one-hit wonder but a real writer.