"Dimly Perceived Threats to the System," Jon Klein's darkly comic attempt to define the American family in crisis, is anachronistic. Now being performed in a smartly acted and crisply directed production at Silver Spring Stage, it's only 12 years old but feels like something from about 1959.
The father is an ineffectual bumbler, the mother is unfulfilled and guilt-ridden, and the teenage daughter is sulkily rebellious. Set firmly in the 1990s, the show is of too recent vintage to play as a period piece. The result is a diluted message of dysfunction delivered in a stylishly entertaining package.
Klein's point is that the family system is threatened by psychological anger, inability to communicate, sexual fantasy and insecurity. While the play supposedly skewers contemporary crises, its old-fashioned stereotypes actually make the point that such issues are timeless. And if they are timeless, is the nuclear family really on the brink of exploding, or is the situation more or less normal?
Fortunately for theatergoers, Klein cleverly exposes family foibles in a series of 30 sitcom-style skits, jumping back and forth between the outer reality of interpersonal connections and the inner unreality of uneasy fantasy, faltering aspiration and whimsy. Klein's educated and solidly middle-class white family hardly speaks for everyone, but most of us should be able to find something familiar. The dialogue is sharp and witty, especially as rendered with impeccable timing and comic emphasis by director Michael Sandner's cast of six.
Baby boomers Marlys (Karen Kellner) and Josh (Ted Schneider) are living the American nightmare. A managerial consultant, Marlys can manage neither her own family nor her paranoid daydreams. Saturated in the corporate culture and unsure of her place in society or her family, she imagines being "let go" so her family can be downsized. Her diffident husband, Josh, is afflicted with his own midlife crisis. A documentary filmmaker, he is vacillating morally, but his confusion sabotages his infidelity. Neither can cope with teen daughter Christine (Katie Keddell), the slouching, sulking and defiantly anorexic product of their union.
School therapist Mr. Sykes (Stuart Fischer) is no match for the manipulative girl, especially as he becomes increasingly infatuated with her mother. Predatory, bisexual producer Megan (Elizabeth Yeats) keeps Josh off balance with her obsessions. Christine, meanwhile, finds comfort at the bedside of her silent and terminally ill grandmother by imagining Dr. Grey (Kelli Biggs) transforming into the old woman and speaking to her. Everyone, it seems, is afraid of being left behind.
It is those flights of fantasy, exaggerated and campy, that provide the comic sparks. The sound of Mr. Sykes sharpening his pencil sends Christine into a terrified vision of being lobotomized. Megan tells romance-challenged Josh not to think of his wife, so of course she materializes in his fevered imagination and interrupts the tryst. Poor Josh just can't win, also imagining Megan invading the family kitchen. These inner monologues, absurd though they might be, are meant to strip away facades and reveal what Klein perceives as the state of the American family unit.
Actors in each scene begin with a more or less formal pose at center stage, then move to their assigned spaces, providing a moment to focus on what's coming next. It is an effective segue that allows the audience to adjust to the shifting realities. The ensemble cast is finely tuned, each instantly creating and projecting character through exaggerated body language and expression. They make their way through the rapidly paced scenes with alacrity, taking us along on a surreally entertaining excursion. It's not profound, but it is fun.