The Unicorn's Bright Ideas is pretty dim.

Preschool for Scandal 

The Unicorn's Bright Ideas is pretty dim.

Rich white folks took it on the chin this summer in the Missouri Repertory Theatre's Living Out, a play about how difficult it is to find good domestic help these days. But what might have been good ironic fun only turned out to be pretentious and dull.

So we wondered if, with Eric Coble's Bright Ideas, the Unicorn Theatre could succeed where the Rep had failed. Again, fussy upper crusters are the target here, in this case overprotective parents obsessing about their toddlers' preschools. And although Bright Ideas has a more interesting cast and makes better use of black comedy and farce, it ultimately shares with Living Out an unfortunate problem. In the end, we really just don't care about these yuppie scum.

The kids born into this show's zip code -- noted in the program only as "a suburb in the U.S.A." -- are programmed down to their designer diapers and Tiffany pacifiers. The adults rearing them are, predictably, a tense lot, so desperate and urgent to get their progeny into the right schools that they get on waiting lists while the moms are still in the delivery room.

Coble's main players in this alternately tepid and frantic sitcom are Gen (Katie Gilchrist) and Josh (Nathan Darrow), whose son, Mac, hasn't yet turned 4. Though both parents are white-collar, they're the first generation in their families who have made the leap, and they want for Mac what they didn't have. Every parent wants what's best for his or her child, but, as written here, Gen and Josh are little more than social climbers who think nothing of going deep into debt as long as their peers see the consequences of their cash-strapped love.

When their first choice of preschools is revealed to be below par (Coble's sharpest invention is that a kid eats a box of staples), they know they must get their son into Bright Ideas, the Ivy League of the Sesame Street set. The roster is full, though, and a coworker of Gen's (Andi Meyer) is the parent of the child in Mac's way. What begins as a dinner invitation, intended to investigate what strings the colleague might pull, becomes a silly excuse for murder, rationalized by the fact that the kid Gen and Josh will render motherless has a dad and stepmom in another city.

There's a long-winded setup to the fateful dinner that unoriginally satirizes cell phones, organic grocery stores and, pointlessly, swishy male flight attendants. (Other musty stabs at humor include punch lines about Martha Stewart, Mother Theresa and Prozac.) The dinner party that ends the first act at least has some energy; director Joe Price has a good feel for physical comedy, as do Gilchrist, Darrow, and Meyer, who single-handedly makes a sight gag as old as Buster Keaton seem fresh.

The second act isn't well-crafted; one can see all the seams marking Coble's struggle to create layers of intrigue. Now that Mac has made it into Bright Ideas, Gen conveniently finds a surplus of faulty policies and personnel -- if she hadn't, I guess the show would be over -- and Josh takes to booze with a vengeance. Before the show ends with a scene written to be hilariously zany that comes off merely busy, the set (designed like a tongue-in-cheek fortress by Atif Rome) is covered with balloons. When one of the actors inadvertently popped one underfoot, it proved to be the only jolt in the show.

The actors are as convincing as they can be in trying to sell Coble's humor-challenged script. Michael Andrew Smith and Heidi Van Middlesworth (along with Gilchrist, cofounders of the alternative theater troupe Princess Squid Productions) have some fun with a couple of their many characters, especially Van Middlesworth as a perpetual breeder who carries saltine crackers around in a baggie. Vanessa Severo has a funny scene as the kind of melodramatic drama teacher who sees nothing wrong with having little kids perform scenes from Death of a Salesman.

But Coble fails to give his big surface issue any dimension. When he throws in a related nuance, such as the sexual tension a preschool's parents might experience or the lack of same when the mother-to-be is nearing delivery, he doesn't follow through. Give me the child, the old adage goes, and I'll show you the man. In Coble's case, the man is spending time with Tinker Toys. Postscript: Kansas City, Kansas, native and Schlagle High School alumna Christina Anderson, who honed her playwriting skills as a member of the Coterie Theatre's Young Playwrights' Roundtable, recently won the Kennedy Center's Lorraine Hansberry award for her play Revelations: The Outtakes. She was nominated by no less a figure than Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel.

Anderson's play has subsequently been selected by the Public Theatre in New York City for inclusion in its New Works Now Festival next October. The honor is put in perspective by past New Work Now productions: Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change, Suzan Lori-Parks' Topdog/Underdog and John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Coterie Artistic Director Jeff Church is over the moon. "The Coterie is very proud of this young playwright, to whom the Coterie very much feels connected," he says.


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