We're guided by program notes and advertising materials to believe that Rebecca Gilman's new play, Luna Gale, is primarily about a social worker in Iowa and the morally challenged world of child services where she's employed. There's some reason to believe that Gilman's play, in a world-premiere production by Chicago's Goodman Theatre presented at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is first and foremost a social drama, given how the central character, Caroline (Mary Beth Fisher), finds herself arbitrating the possession of an infant between young, unmarried, meth-addicted parents (Colin Sphar and Reyna de Courcy) and the tag-team duo of the baby's evangelical Christian grandmother, Cindy (Jordan Baker), and her spiritual adviser, Pastor Jay (Richard Thieriot). The Christian team wants the baby girl removed from her secular parents' custody. It doesn't help Caroline's efforts to assist the parents' rehab that her own supervisor, Cliff (Erik Hillman), is himself an evangelical Christian and friends with Pastor Jay.
And though Gilman's insights into the minutiae of a child services bureaucracy is impressive enough, the social drama is almost beside the point, which is metaphysical. If Gilman's primary insight is that our public social services are broken, that such institutions with the care of children as their mandate are so underfunded and so polluted by the professional ambitions and imperious corruptions of their leaders as to be actually dangerous to the very people they're supposed to be protecting, a valid response might be, thanks but tell me something I don't already know.
That something comes in the form of a small plot twist: Caroline, enduring the full-court press of her supervisor to support the grandmother's petition for full custody, needs to undermine the grandmother's credibility. Perhaps the grandmother looked the other way when her own daughter — the baby's mother — was molested by her stepfather. And so starts Caroline's task of turning a horrible fiction into a horrible reality.
The thing is, as these things go, what if it's actually true? Caroline argues that her morally appalling strategy — indicting an aggressive petitioner on an invention — was based on a "hunch" that the invention may be true. What, in fact, happened, and how can we know? The plot device is similar to the mantra, "You repeat a lie often enough and it becomes true." Is that mantra the definition of faith? Caroline is surrounded by people profoundly dedicated to invented realities, so is she now merely playing on their field? Is that morally justifiable?
These are the questions that make Luna Gale so scintillating. Stir in Robert Falls' staging of a superlative ensemble, and you have a production that doesn't let go easily.
Fisher's droll, husky-throated Caroline is a monument to understated intelligence. The evening's biggest roar of laughter comes from her deadpan expression following Cliff's remark that, after all, he's not a Neanderthal. Baker's grandmother Cindy has a marvelous child-like vulnerability — a veneer that works in perfect counterpoint to her laser-sharp determination to get what she wants. Thieriot's Pastor Jay and Hellman's supervisor Cliff are a similarly, damnably earnest team of Tartuffes who actually mean it: terrifying, and terrifyingly authentic.
Behind the twitchy artifice of meth addiction, Sphar and de Courcy's young parents emerge as bruised and endearing figures. There's also a nice performance by Melissa Du Prey as a ward who's aged out of the system — on her way to junior college, or so she says, and so one would hope.
The artifice and resonances of making things up, and how those inventions may affect or even change our lives, are the foundations of art in general, and of Anton Chekhov's comedy-tragedy about the arts, The Seagull, in particular. Washington, D.C.'s, Woolly Mammoth Theatre has been doubly fixated on The Seagull recently, having commissioned two adaptations by two different writers: Aaron Posner's Stupid Fucking Bird (a mega-hit at Pasadena's Boston Court earlier this year) as well as David Bucci's comedy Possum Carcass, now receiving its world premiere at Hollywood's Theatre of NOTE.
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Set in contemporary New York (I think — though people type on typewriters and there are at least two references to pagers), the play is a witty take-down of self-absorbed artists — in this production, bearded young men. Because William Moore Jr.'s set is so utilitarian — barely decorated platforms and curtains, mostly — we're compelled to image the environs from between the lines. Alina Phelan directs a production that hits the jokes on the head, so that there's very little subtextual comedy, providing us with little work to do. The Arkadina character (Lauren Letherer), here a soap opera star, insists, in parody, that a play should not make the audience work at all. Well, here we have just that.
The larger problem is that even a gentle satire of self-absorbed artists, when not juxtaposed against the more noble or even powerful forces of fiction, turns into grist for the mills of those who would dismiss the arts as an irrelevant indulgence. I'm certain that's not the intent of the playwright, or of this production, but there it is regardless.
LUNA GALE | By Rebecca Gilman | Goodman Theatre at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City | Through Dec. 21 | (213) 628-2772 | centertheatregroup.org
POSSUM CARCASS | By David Bucci | Theatre of NOTE, 1517 N. Cahuenga Blvd., Hlywd. | Through Jan. 10 | (323) 856-8611 | theatreofnote.com