Fort Worth — The first thing you’ll notice about the latest play at Stage West will be the last thing you remember about it.
The set for The Unmentionables by Bruce Norris (Clybourne Park) is uncommonly attractive. Designer Jason Domm has created an enticing bedroom with a sumptuous color palette and exotic appointments. It’s all so lovely an African getaway starts to sound like a good idea.
But watch out, this beautiful bait hides a hook.
A curtain speech courtesy of a heavily accented boy, Etienne, (Nicholas Holden) shatters the reverie with a barking-dog beratement for choosing to come and see a play instead of staying home and watching cable television. He attacks the audience’s belief that attending theater is the superior activity. Just when you realize you’re the fish in his barrel, he stops shooting and the play begins in earnest.
Suddenly it’s a recognizable scenario of a young couple being offered a place for the night by an older couple. The broad characters of rich guy (Jim Covault), dotty wife (Wendy Welch), Christian goody-goody (Jake Buchanan) and unsure girlfriend (Dana Shultes) would lead you to believe this is going to be an easy comedy. Except that this lovely house is built off the sweat of the people the missionary is trying to help, one of who may have burnt down his school because they think he’s gay. The corrupt local politician, Aunt Mimi (Natalie Wilson King) reminds them that bad things happened to the last missionary for that reason. So, it’s hard to know what to believe.
The entirety of The Unmentionables is a brake-check on beliefs in general.
Whether your god resides in a church, a bankbook or a pill bottle, playwright Norris declares that any faith is fraught with folly. While he’s punching holes in everything, however, his own craft takes a few hits, bringing a new meaning to (mind the pun) “holier than thou.” It’s up to director René Moreno to row this boat ashore as it paradoxically both takes on water and can’t hold it. He has the unenviable task of steering us either toward identifying with the characters or laughing at them.
In the first act, some are more successful paddling in the laughing direction. Asked to do the most and answering with great aplomb is Welch as the uncensored wife. No subject escapes her comment. Doing as much with less is Brandon Burrell as the pot smoking resident doctor. Where the Welch’s wife is brave or just blind in her blathering, the doctor is baked. Rarely is a fly in the ointment this entertaining, but Burrell finds a way to coat his comments in an exaggerated innocence that allows him to challenge the status quo longer than should be allowed.
Meanwhile, the lovely Schultes and regal Covault anchor the proceedings as mutual, though opposing, voices of reason. Covault turns in a carefully balanced performance of a businessman with a nagging conscience. Years of dealing with well-heeled board members obviously paid off here. Schultes creates a girlfriend with her own crisis of conscience that balances out the businessman beautifully. One of the best scenes of the evening comes as these two get a chance to meet in the middle. Actually, the small scenes, in general, go better than the large ones. That is until things get really dark, in the second act.
Even though this play talks like a satire, it walks like a farce. Usually that means that the stakes are high but the consequences don’t matter. In this case, the playwright makes them not matter by making them meaner. It’s akin to flipping the game board with a handgun. The results are at times hilarious or horrifying or both. Either way you should be prepared for rug burns on your jaw. Just when it hits the floor, the rug gets yanked right out from under. It’s sort of an Apocalypse Now version of Noises Off.
By the end, you’ll be so shook up, you won’t even remember the pretty set.