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Bed Reckoning

Pine City, Minnesota, sounds like one of those small Midwestern towns whose very names we’re used to snickering at, thanks to Hollywood’s painting them as the kind of drowsy burgs where people will gather to watch a man change a tire. The city’s government Web site gives us no reason to suspect otherwise: “A park on the north bank of the Snake River,” crows the site, “offers boat and fishing piers, picnic facilities, and a gazebo shelter and is the site of the huge redwood statue of a voyageur.” Brainerd without the intrigue, we think, remembering the Paul Bunyan statue in Fargo. Still, it’s where playwright Craig Wright locates several of his dramas, including Orange Flower Water, now running at the Victory Theater Center. If, as poet Philip Larkin wrote, “Nothing, like something, happens anywhere,” Wright skillfully makes Pine City the Lutheran “anywhere” in which adultery and recriminations quietly explode.

The story’s fulcrum is a center-stage bed, that place where life, death and a whole in-between occur. Cathy and David (Ann Noble and Robert Poe) are a married couple, but it’s not them we find in the sheets together. With Cathy away on business, David is making motel time with Beth (Julie Quinn). Their verbal foreplay is embarrassingly realistic in the lightheaded idealism and neurotic doubts the two express about the path they have set out on. David is convinced that he and Beth made the biggest mistakes of their lives by marrying their current spouses. He doesn’t repeat this opinion too loudly, however, when he later runs into Beth’s brutish husband, Brad (Tim Sullens), at their kids’ soccer match. Wright gives us a tight, menacing scene, as Brad, who works in a video store and divines in Cathy’s rental choices a pussy-whipped husband, tries to goad David into rating different women in the bleachers, eventually cornering him to choose — just for fun — between their two wives.

When the awful truth eventually comes out, no one acts pretty, least of all Brad, who rages and blubbers — and then finks out Beth and David to Cathy. Yet it’s in Brad’s behavior that we will see our own possible choices, and it’s in Sullens’ heart-wrenching performance that this production, directed by Carri Sullens, finds its voice. There’s not a single false note sounded by Sullens’ betrayed Brad, and the latent violence boiling beneath his pain never allows us to take the play’s course for granted.

Unfortunately, Wright’s 85-minute one-act nosedives in its last scene, set a few years later — a hollow, Hallmarky monologue in which David composes a letter to be read sometime in the future by his and Beth’s young daughter. It’s full of affectionate hindsight and a sense of bad grownups fessing up and atoning for their wickedness — more or less by proclaiming kids to be the only reasons we ever crawl into bed together. It’s also one of those examples of adults living through their children instead of their own decisions and relationships, and is meant to make this runaway dad and his home-wrecking lover more palatable.

The problem is that Wright doesn’t have to sell us anymore on the idea that the world is filled with mismatched couples. We completely sympathized with David’s exit strategy as soon as the play opened on Cathy’s monologue, the dopey I-wuv-you note she composed to him before leaving town; and Brad’s soccer-game antics already made a persuasive case for giving a get-out-of-jail card to Beth for committing murder, let alone adultery. Perhaps at this point Wright should have spared us the closure and simply left the two couples’ story to hang in the prairie wind; another Larkin verse, certainly, would describe Wright’s purpose just as well as David’s epistle:They fuck you up, your mum and dad

They may not mean to, but they do.

ORANGE FLOWER WATER | By CRAIG WRIGHT | At Victory Theater Center, 3324 W. Victory Blvd., Burbank | Through April 23 | (818) 841-5422


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