In the dark comedy ‘Pluto,’ a family’s world is upended over breakfast chitchat

February 27

Elizabeth (Jennifer Mendenhall, left) and her son Bailey (Mark Halpern, right) chat over breakfast in Forum Theatre’s “Pluto.” (Jati Lindsay)

Laughter, the saying goes, is the best medicine. And even if it isn’t strong enough for a cure, it might help you understand the root of your sickness.

That’s director Michael Dove’s goal for Forum Theatre’s “Pluto,” which opened last week at Round House Theatre Silver Spring. The play takes place over the course of a breakfast-table conversation between a single mother, Elizabeth (Jennifer Mendenhall), and her reclusive son, Bailey (Mark Halpern) — a community college student who, it turns out, has somehow been involved in a local school tragedy. It sounds like a drama, but Dove insists the show’s humor is more powerful than its despair.

“This is a horrible tag line, but this is the funniest play about a school shooting you will ever see,” Dove says. “And I don’t mean that to be irreverent, because it’s an extremely reverent play. But it does have a way of opening up the debate in a way that I don’t think the news can.”

As Elizabeth tries to bridge a growing distance between her and Bailey — a rift magnified by the death of her husband (Bailey’s father) — she grasps desperately at the receding hope of a normal life. The set looks like any suburban kitchen and the conversation borders on the banal: surface-level chitchat about Pop-Tarts flavors and test grades. But the events of the day before have thrown this family’s world askew, and it shows. The family dog (played by a human actress) has three heads, the radio speaks directly to its listeners and there’s something ominous trying to get out of the refrigerator, which shakes as if possessed. The characters don’t seem to notice the paranormal forces at play — or maybe they just don’t want to see things as they truly are.

Playwright Steve Yockey is known for examining fraught social issues through a supernatural lens. He depicted AIDS as a threatening, tentacled sea monster in “Octopus” and set grieving parents in a world of giant talking birds and imaginary tea shops in “Afterlife: A Ghost Story.” In each of his plays, fantasy elements offer jumping-off points for everyday subject matter.

“Sometimes [‘Pluto’] is sci-fi, at some points it’s horror, but, like both of those genres, it works best because [the subject matter is] something that we actually deal with,” Dove says. “The thing that theater can do best is take those topics and throw a whole new way of looking at it.”

Dove chose “Pluto” for the Forum Theatre in December 2012. A week later, Adam Lanza shot and killed 20 students and six staff members at an elementary school in Sandy Hook, Conn. With the media embroiled in a gun control debate and the public in shock, Dove and the production team thought twice about their selection.

“But what we came out with was, ‘That’s all the more reason to do it,’ ” Dove says. “I like choosing plays that scare me a little.”

Forum Theatre at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring; through March 15, $20 (pay-what-you-want tickets available an hour before showtime); 240-644-1390. (Silver Spring)

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