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.

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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