SOMEONE IN THE audience said that actress Victoria Englemayer downs 18 cans of Coke a night as the malnourished, clothes-shredding teenager Christine in Dimly Perceived Threats to the System--though most of the cans she nursed looked empty to me (all the better to crush and throw to the ground before storming offstage). She does have a Coke problem, though--but hey, when your perfect nuclear family sucks, sometimes you need a little helper.
As a kid, I thought "nuclear family" had something to do with the arms race. And of course, it does. The term is one of those rare and elegant phrases that encompass a whole system in the imagination: a wooden model of a molecule; a lonely only child standing around a kitchen; a fake Christmas tree; Ronald Reagan. Like the Bomb, the nuclear family is one of those 20th-century improvements that, despite high hopes, hasn't delivered on its promises. It's a lemon--and what goes better with lemon than Coke?
Christine's family has a structural problem from the start, conveyed through a stage so steeply raked that the Jetsons-ish breakfast table and chairs look as if they're about to hurtle right into the audience. It's at this table that downsizing consultant Marlys, documentary filmmaker Josh (currently at work on a project about the demise of the nuclear family), and their scowling offspring meet each morning to miscommunicate. Sitting next to my father, I watched my own teenage battles with him reenacted in the first scene with all the embarrassing exposure of a cold speculum: Christine is wearing a stupid getup--chains of colored paper clips hanging on ratty overalls; Josh (Christopher Denton) protests, claims control of her body as long as he's goddamn feeding it; Marlys gets stuck as peacemaker. Christine wins.
Marlys, played beautifully by Heidi Arneson, is a career woman who feels like she's failing on all fronts. Her husband is cheating with a skinny younger woman. Her daughter hates her. Her job is a mess of stress. At breakfast one morning, Josh and Christine can't hear her asking repeatedly for the butter; apparently she's gone catatonic and doesn't even know it. Not long after, Josh informs her that he and Christine have decided to let her go. There are other candidates for the job. She protests, she begs, she promises to bake a pie.
These are both anxiety fantasies, of course, two of many that float unannounced throughout the script. Worst- and best-case scenarios are played out with straight faces until we're not sure what's really happening, or even which character is imagining it. (Think of the Marshall McLuhan scene in Annie Hall.) This device reveals more about the characters than their own words ever could; when Christine envisions a hospital nurse as her dying grandmother, we see the sad little kid she's been trying so hard to camouflage.
The inadequacy of words, especially those of "experts," is part of the joke and the tragedy here. Snatches of psychological lingo are projected on the wall between scenes-- "cognitive dissonance," "discursive consciousness," "goal displacement"--when what we're really seeing onstage is innuendo, misunderstanding, and confusion. The language of business is on trial as well, Marlys describing it as a system designed to make the worker feel small ("downsizing" being the obvious example). These characters live quite a distance from the words meant to describe their lives--as wide a distance as the one between each of them.
Despite the play's prodding of many emotional tender spots--and you're guaranteed to feel the poke at some point, whoever you are--one feels a sense of comfort and order here. And that's the result of Illusion Theater's meticulous production standards: These actors have rehearsed religiously, and they're all excellent; the set is thoughtfully designed, as are the costumes; the music works; the script is tight. Because of all this, small flaws can't do as much damage--for example, it doesn't really matter that Coke is a cliché by now. And whether you buy the ending or not, it's clear that this story isn't really ending: The nuclear family is still mutating, we're still falling off our kitchen chairs.