There is a wonderfully deft stroke early in Firemen, Tommy Smith's darkly funny and disturbing new play, in which the playwright uses a jelly doughnut to light the tangled fuse of the incendiary Oedipal conflagration to come.
That's when Firemen's sullen and tightly wound young protagonist, Ben (the fine Ian Bamberg), serving detention for writing anonymous and explicitly steamy mash notes to Susan (a smoldering Rebecca Gray), his middle school's affable office secretary, draws a sharp rebuke from "detention counselor" Mr. Gary (a nicely understated Michael McColl) over an assumed double entendre in Ben's stated preference for cherry filling.
From that moment on, the play's language and situations become charged with a deliciously ironic prurience, out of which Ben's violent adolescent anger and Susan's oddly sympathetic compulsion spontaneously combust into the most outrageously taboo of torrid love stories.
The most pivotal characters prove to be those who aren't onstage at all - the absent fathers and husbands whose firm guidance and support might have extinguished the play's ungoverned passions before they had a chance to ignite.
Director Chris Fields' stylishly sleight-of-hand staging (eloquently accented by Matt Richter's dynamic lights) and a disarmingly appealing ensemble (including Amanda Saunders and Zach Callison) strike just the right balance between uneasy laughter and unpalatable titillation to drive home Smith's unsettling portrait of a society whose most endangered species may be the moral and emotional anchor of the nuclear family.
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Echo Theater Company, Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Atwater; through March 16. (310) 307-3753, echotheatercompany.com.
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