“Blueberry Toast” Slices Deep into our Fantasies

Edward Albee isn’t dead.  And Antonin Artaud is laughing in his grave.

Because Mary Laws is alive and well and writing plays, and the Echo Theater Company is producing them.

In Blueberry Toast, world-premiering at the Atwater VillageTheatre, Laws answers the Frenchman’s  call for a “theatre of cruelty” like Joan of Arc taking up arms for the archangel Michael.  And she presses the American master’s lacerating satire to places even he didn’t go.

It starts simply enough.  A bright, cute kitchen (scene design: Amanda Knehans) and perky music (sound design: Jeff Gardner) gently mock the suburban dream, suggesting where we’re going.  Enter Walt and Barb.  He’s floating in satisfaction, she’s smiling and attentive.

Soon, though, he casts yearning glances outside their cozy domicile,  and she looks at unguarded moments as if she’s swallowed the Franco-Prussian War and been unable to digest it.  She cajoles him into having breakfast; he asks for blueberry pancakes; she serves him blueberry compote on toast.  The glove has been thrown down.

As their marital tete-a-tete escalates to mano-a-mano and beyond, their two children, Jill and Jack, rush in and out.  They’re excited to show off a play they’re creating, one act at a time, and — except for a hilarious TMI moment  when they interrupt violent sex — fail to grasp what’s happening.

Through all three acts of the children’s play, and the brutal crescendo of their parents’ warfare, the audience is laughing helplessly, loud and long — even at the end, when Jill mourns like Electra and Jack sits stunned, an infant Orpheus descending into madness.

In Laws’ hands, the layers of wishing and pretending peel off of the suburban fantasy at breakneck speed, leaving only the dark matter of blood.  What’s remarkable is that on this ride from Disneyland into hell, she has us laughing all the way.

Laws has a precise eye and ear, and a wonderful sense of rhythm and structure.  She lets every syllable mean.  Her writing gifts are amplified by Dustin Wills’ deft, relentless direction, and by the unstinting work of the actors.

Alexandra Freeman’s Jill bounces effervescently, and Michael Sturgis as Jack follows diffidently in her wake.  Neither role could be played by a child,  and these two subtly remind us of how we infantilize our offspring, teaching them not to trust what they see or know.

As Walt, Albert Dayan is delightfully self-centered, remaining blithely clueless about anyone else’s feelings to the bitter end.  His monolog about himself (a  gentle parody of his namesake Whitman?) skewers men everywhere, and his self-righteous woundedness is a joy to behold, even as we wince with recognition.  Masterfully underplayed.

Of course, the demon in this lovely machine, the unfailing source of its energy, is Barb.  And Jacqueline Wright is a virtuoso, taking us through fifty shades of crazy without missing a nuance.   As Barb allows herself to feel  indignity after indignity, then unleashes anger after anger, we howl with laughter — in anticipation of her next act, and in her execution of it.  We know her pain too well, and feel ourselves released when she lets fly.  Barb is a brilliant but terrifyingly difficult role, and Wright gives it one of this year’s great comic performances.

Artaud wanted theatre to shock audiences out of their complacency; Albee wanted it to show us the truth beneath the stories we tell  ourselves.  Mary Laws wants to be “a badassmotherfuckingwriter.”  Echo Theater Company’s production of Blueberry Toast grants all their wishes, and presents American theater with a dark jewel.
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Blueberry Toast, by Mary Laws, directed by Dustin Wills.
Presented by the Echo Theater Company, at Atwater Village Theatre,  3269 Casitas Ave., LA 90039.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00,
Sundays at 4:00,
through October 24th.
Mondays (September 19th and 26th, and  October 24th only) at 8:00.

Tickets:   <www.echotheatercompany.com>  or  (310) 307-3753.