Playwright Richard Greenberg uses words very carefully, not only to a carve a tone of erudition and lyricism but also in order to avoid redundancy. So when the line, "She was an average situational liar but not at all a maker of fables," is repeated in different scenes of his family drama/mystery, one can infer added significance. The slippery divide between making fables and simply making stuff up lies at the heart of this 10th Greenberg play to be premiered by SCR. The play is bifurcated, each section mirroring the other. The first part is a kind of memory play, mostly narrated by each of the characters directly to the audience and almost entirely spoken in the past tense. It's a prose-poem, really, concerning the last deluded days in the life of a New York City matriarch, Anna (Jenny O'Hara), who's in the mood to be making confessions to her gay obit-writer son, Seth (Ayre Gross), and lesbian daughter Abby (Marin Hinkle) in for death-watch duties from Laguna Beach. Under Pam MacKinnon's pleasingly blithe staging, which drifts seamlessly between Beckettian and Wildean humors, the characters are all parked comfortably on and around park benches in some metaphoric autumn of Sybil Wickersheimer's set. Besides, Anna's death may not be imminent but just another scare; this is the kind of gnarly Jewish comedienne who can even invent her own demise. She tells of a "brief affair" she had, and the play feels like an exploration of quaint family behaviors that somehow reflect on the human condition. Then a bomb drops, which places the subject of her affair (Matthew Arkin) on the stage of world horrors. It's a tricky, tone-shattering device meant to shift the scale of the play's concerns from the domestic to the mythic which seems right in a play that's about how and why myths are invented. It sits right conceptually, less so emotionally. When we're catapulted into Greenberg's world of larger issues, it feels something like being jerked into a hot-air balloon, from a comedy about behaviors to one about the psychology of ethics. The play is supposed to get larger from its broader sense of scale, but it actually deflates ever so slightly from the puncture of Greenberg's pristine domestic universe, though this may be more an issue of mechanics than concept. The ideas are so rich, and the language so beautiful, the play's rude awakening certainly doesn't diminish the credence of the event, and the ensemble is perfect. South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa; Tues.-Wed., 7:30 p.m.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m.; Sun., 7:30 p.m.; through May 3. (714) 708-5555.
Sat., April 11, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2:30 & 7:30 p.m.; Tuesdays, Wednesdays, 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays, Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2:30 & 8 p.m. Starts: April 11. Continues through May 3, 2009