Parents, would-be parents -- really, anybody who's heard the term "family values" -- will get a kick out of the gleeful black comedy "Bright Ideas." Up-and-coming playwright Eric Coble's script, which has been given a frugal but diverting staging by the Didactic Theatre Company, revels in a vision of the nurturing instinct gone haywire. Given the obsession with Baby Mozart smart-baby CDs, the nanny-cam and childproof toilet locks, what desperate extremes are possible?
Answering this question, "Bright Ideas" romps through the saga of Genevra and Joshua Bradley, anxious parents of a 3-year-old boy, whom they are resolved to shower with every possible advantage. At the top of their list is enrolling little Mac in Bright Ideas Early Childhood Development Academy, the ne plus ultra of preschools (facilities include an Olympic-size pool that's three feet deep). Alas, though the Bradleys registered their son for Bright Ideas on the day he was born, he's still stuck on the waiting list, so the fretting couple take matters into their own hands, with dire and downright Shakespearean results.
Director Christopher Carroll has coaxed the Didactic production onto an enjoyably hyperbolic track, maximizing Coble's wicked lampooning of the parenting industry. The Bradleys' moral disintegration unspools with a madcap energy, a Grand Guignol scene involving pesto sauce providing one particular high point (in the tiny space of the D.C. Arts Center you can see the olive oil glisten). Leo Goodman deadpans his way smartly through the role of Josh, moving from feverish excitement -- the part calls for capering around the stage chanting, "I am burning lava" -- to boozy despair. Kristy Powers gives valuable emotional ballast to the early sections of the play, bringing an air of panicked intensity to Genevra, who gets so worried about mothering that she hyperventilates. And both performers glide more or less buoyantly through Coble's rather belabored "Macbeth" allusions (some of these smart-alecky references involve the play's other personages, including the coyly named Mrs. Heath).
But it's the incidental roles that add the most bite to the production, thanks to the ensemble's ability to switch abruptly from one broad caricature to another, helped by judicious small costume changes. Marissa Molnar morphs artfully from Lynzie, a grotesquely pregnant Bright Ideas mother with a crazed cheerful smile, to the diva-esque Miss Caithness, drama coach for preschoolers ("We did an all-school production of 'Cabaret!'), among other figures. Dana Edwards conjures up another slate of quirky personalities, including Ms. Lennox, a cautious Bright Ideas executive who uses sock puppets to carry out her arguments with parents. And Linden Tailor chips in with further wackos, including Coach Angus, a sports guru for toddlers who probably moonlights as a Navy SEAL ("Our whole philosophy here is based on Sun Tzu's 'The Art of War' ").
The set, designed by Nathaniel Sinnott, consists almost solely of oversize toy blocks, whose nursery-rhyme naivete creates a nicely ironic backdrop for the dissolute goings-on of the play's adults. The humor in "Bright Ideas" is not much subtler than these bulky blocks, but it offers a pleasurable whirl through the ridiculous -- a cartoon landscape where fair is foul and foul is fair. And, at the same time, it gets in a few sharp digs at our culture's child-rearing neuroses.
Bright Ideas, by Eric Coble. Directed by Christopher Carroll; set and lighting design, Nathaniel Sinnott; sound design, Dan Schrader. Two hours. At the D.C. Arts Center, 2438 18th St. NW, through Nov. 13. Call 202-249-0782 or visit www.didactictheatre.com.