The L.A. based Minnesota expatriates who brought us the over-the-top
craziness of Maxwell Anderson’s Bad Seed are back, with a quite different yet
equally laugh-inducing original, Jen Ellison’s Invasion Of The Minnesota
Normals. Set in the “innocent” Eisenhower-era 1950s, Invasion makes it clear
that the sometimes idealized golden years before Viet Nam and women’s lib
and school shootings and gay marriage were not so perfect after all.

Invasion was inspired by an actual personality test administered at the same
time the McCarthy hearings were going on. The MMPI (short for Minnesota
Multiphasic Personality Inventory) was a test used to identify an employee’s
“integrity and trustworthiness.” As the play’s title indicates, the control group
(aka the “Normals”) were all Minnesotans, mostly married folk with children,
rural farmers and blue-collars, with an average educational level of eighth

Ellison’s play opens on a rainy night in 1953, in the suburban Chicago home of
Ruth and Roy McKinley. Roy arrives home from work and quickly goes upstairs,
unbeknownst to wife Ruth, who gets busy preparing for an evening of
cocktails with invited friends.  Ruth is perfectly coiffed, perfectly decked out in
a white blouse and full calf-length skirt, the picture of 1950s perfection.  There
are three invited guests—bachelor school-teacher Walter Hathaway and the
quarrelsome Helen and Stanley Beachum. A surprise visitor is new-to-the-
neighborhood Robert Jones, freshly arrived from Minnesota, a just-hired
employee in the firm where Roy works.  Chicken casserole in hand, Robert
accepts Ruth’s invitation to return with his wife Mary to join in the get-

If all this sounds a trifle ordinary and not particularly engaging, think again. 
Ellison’s script is deliciously subversive and often side-splittingly funny, yet based
in a slightly skewed reality.  Under Melissa Denton’s smart direction, the cast
deliver incisive performances which occasionally skirt the edge of caricature
but never cross over the line.

The cocktail party (and the play) center around the aforementioned
personality test, whose questions, written on 4×6 cards, sit innocently inside a
box on the McKinley’s coffee table.  Ruth informs Walter, her first guest, that
Roy has brought the test home for her to take. In fact, Ruth says, Roy seems
quite excited by the idea. The questions (actually true/false statements) are
simple if a bit bizarre: “I sometimes wonder if I am destructive to others,” “I
sometimes wake up drenched in sweat,” “I am convinced of a plot,” “I would
like to perform in a cabaret,” etc.

Minnesotan Robert seems a nice enough sort when he arrives with the
proverbial “hot dish” in hand, though his normalcy seems open to doubt when,
following a brief blackout swiftly remedied by Walter’s replacing a burned out
fuse, Ruth finds Robert seated on the arm of the sofa, just behind her, sniffing
at her hair.

We hear Helen and Stanley screaming at each other at the top of their lungs
before we see them (in fact the whole neighborhood must hear them),
husband so uptight that his neck nearly disappears into his starched white
shirt, wife so statuesque that her platinum bobbed head towers over him.

Ruth’s “gallows humor” becomes evident when she recounts a story about
some bad stuff happening to a couple they know, a tale which ends with the
husband’s attempt to hang himself. She then informs her guests that it was all
a fabrication. If she only knew…

The Minnesota couple arrive next, the casserole gets served, and though the
Chicagoans nibble gingerly, Robert and Mary gobble up the “creamy cheesy
food.” Mary reveals that she is prone to cry for no reason, and that she
sometimes lets the phone ring because “they” might be calling. (Let it not be
forgotten that these are the Minnesota NORMALS.)

Much is made of Walter’s 4F status during WWII.  While Roy and Stanley were
off fighting, Walter stayed home due to a weak heart, and it was during that
time that he and Ruth became close friends.  Clearly, friends is not what
Stanley and Walter are.  Their enmity becomes evident when Walter presses
Stanley about what he does for a living and won’t let go until he gets a
satisfactory answer. “I’m in mergers and acquisitions,” Stanley informs him.
“What does that mean?” asks Walter.  “We merge and we acquire,” screams
back Stanley, his face red as a tomato. “I go to work … and I have a wife of
my own!” Stanley then goes on the offensive, accusing Walter of not really
being a teacher because he teaches “Social Studies,” and not a real subject
like Science or Math.

Neither the Minnesotans nor the Chicagoans seem to know quite what to
make of each other, especially when it turns out that Robert and Mary were
guinea pigs in the development of the personality test.  Worse still is the news
that Roy has been “let go” from the firm and that Robert has been newly
hired…without having had to take the test. Then again, why should he need
to take it when he’s part of the control group?  “Is there something wrong
with being not abnormal?” he asks. After all, “someone has to be normal so
that people like you can be strange.”

Though much (though most definitely not all) of the plot has been revealed
here, no synopsis can convey just how funny Invasion is, due as much to the
cast’s sensational performances as to Ellison’s clever script.

Leading the ensemble is the wonderful Deborah F. Reed as the Loretta
Young/Donna Reed “perfect” (at least on the surface) 1950s housewife Ruth. 
Reed’s acting is so subtle and true that it anchors the play in reality, all the
while she finds herself surrounded by a bunch of eccentrics. Rich Hutchman is
an ingratiating Walter and Anne von Herrmann and Peter Breitmayer are
especially funny as the mismatched feuding Beechums. It’s fun too to watch
Hutchman and Breitmayer as they push each other’s buttons to comic effect. 
Completing the ensemble are the marvelous Brad David Reed and Judy
Heneghan as the Joneses, whose disconcerted reactions to the Chicagoans’
abnormalcy are a pleasure to behold.

Troy Wilderson has designed a set that perfectly captures the look and feel of a
suburban 50s home, complete with hi-fi console and portable bar, beautifully
complemented by Michael Halpin’s period costumes.  Derrick McDaniel’s
lighting design is top-notch, and Peter Carlin’s sound design incorporates
music of the era (e.g. Nat King Cole on the hi-fi) as well as some effective
“upstairs” sounds, most especially in the startling final scene. Special credit is
due to whoever designed Heneghan’s absolutely awful turned under bangs.

What makes Invasion Of The Minnesota Normals so much more than “just a
comedy” is its comic intelligence and the way it subverts the 50s and reveals
just how much dysfunction was hidden under the TV sitcom Ozzie and Harriet,
Father Knows Best stereotype.  Angelinos can be glad that the Buzzworks
Minnesotans decided to make the trek west!

The Lounge Theatre at 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
March 15, 2008

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