Remember Beverly Sutphin, the sociopathic serial killer heroine of John Waters’ movie Serial Mom?  Well, dear old Bev may just have met her match in Genevra Bradley, a mother who will do anything—and I do mean anything—to get her 3-year-old son into Bright Ideas, the most prestigious preschool in town.

Genevra and her (slightly less) willing accomplice/hubby Joshua are the protagonists of Eric Coble’s devilishly funny and deliciously dark comedy, Bright Ideas, now playing at Long Beach’s International City Theatre. Though not quite based on a true story, facts do back up Coble’s satire of the cutthroat tactics employed by today’s parents in the competitive world of preschool education. Take for example, the recent headline which proclaimed “Manhattan Preschools … Harder To Get Into Than Harvard” or ABC Nightline’s exclusive exposé on the “Cutthroat Preschool Wars.”

It does takes Genevra (Amie Farrell) a bit of a while to turn into a modern Lady Macbeth, however.  At first, she’s just your average, everyday young wife and mother accompanying hubby Joshua (Brian Stanton) and son Mac (named after Josh’s grandfather, not the truck) on a family excursion to check out Sunny Days preschool.  Teacher Mrs. Heath (Heather Corwin) clearly believes in giving her young charges their freedom, as per the LaRousse Theory. “Our preschool gives choices, not orders,” she tells the Bradleys proudly, then goes on to ask one of the play’s unseen children, “Logan, is it a good choice to play by the swing when Monica’s waving the log?”

Progressive as Sunny Days Preschool may be, it’s not Gen and Josh’s first choice for Mac. That honor goes to the far more prestigious and selective Bright Ideas, 98% of whose graduates have gone on to study at Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth. It’s no wonder the Bradleys made sure to get on the Bright Ideas waiting list a full three years ago, when “Josh went straight from the delivery room to sign Mac up.”

There’s only one hitch to the Bradleys’ plan.  For Mac to be admitted into Bright Ideas, a space must miraculously open up on the school’s acceptance list, something that’s unlikely to happen unless Gen and Josh can eliminate the competition, or at least some of the competition, or at least Gen’s coworker Denise (Meghan Maureen McDonough). It’s just not fair, says Genevra, that Denise’s son Duncan got into Bright Ideas simply because of the considerable amount she and ex-hubby Kevin donated to the school’s new aquatic room.  If only Denise can be gotten rid of, then Duncan will have to move in with his dad and stepmom in Chicago, his place at Bright Ideas will go to Mac, and all will be right with the world.

Thank goodness for the Internet, and the Organic Feather food store. The Net quickly provides just the right poisonous recipe, which is to mix Ladies’ Mantle, an herb, and Guarana, a stimulant, for a lethal (and untraceable) result, and Organic Feather just happens to have both these items in stock.  If the Bradleys can only get Denise to join them for dinner (pasta with pesto sauce, to mask the bright green color of the toxic mix), then before you know it, the road to Bright Ideas will be free and clear.

Under caryn desai’s fast and furious direction, all five cast members (Louis Lotorto is the fifth) give deliciously broad performances, including slapstick moments worthy of the best of I Love Lucy.

Farrell is a hoot as the mother from hell (or at least the mother destined to end up there), her initial maternal enthusiasm soon replaced by a murderous zeal.  It’s great fun to watch ICT fave Stanton take his good-looking, good-natured sitcom dad from supportive co-parent to accomplice in homicide.  Supporting performers get the plum assignments here, though.  Lotorto, one of L.A. theater’s best and most versatile actors, gets laughs galore playing assorted male characters including uber-dad Ross, Genevra’s high power boss Mr. Scott, a flamboyant (what else?) airline steward, and bicep-obsessed physical-fitness specialist Coach Angus.  Corwin brings a slightly bug-eyed craziness to Mrs. Heath, perpetually pregnant Lynzie, Mr. Scott’s anal retentive assistant Ms. Labradour, and enunciation specialist Mrs. Menteith, among others. A particularly versatile McDonough has a field day with supermom Cate, sexy murder victim Denise, drama specialist Miss Caithness, and Ms. Lennox, the Bright Ideas Chief Administrative Executive who can only communicate with parents using hand puppets. 

One of the evening’s most hilarious moments comes when enunciation, physical fitness, and drama specialists join forces to provide an outrageously comic tableau of child education gone berserk. Mrs. Menteith: I give him a stringent test for excess mucus. Coach Angus: We have a staff of four coaches and twenty former pro athletes.  Mrs. Caithness: Last year we did an all-(pre)school production of Cabaret! Mrs. Menteith: Bodago, bodago, bodago… Coach Angus: Twenty reps of thirty ab crunches … Miss Caithness:  “I’ve been to London to visit the Queen.”

Set designer Stephen Gifford, lighting designer Jared A. Sayeg, and sound designer Bill Georges have combined forces here to make a Southland dream team.  Sayeg illuminates Gifford’s green-and-white checkerboard floor into numerous configurations to signal the borders of the show’s many rooms and other locales, intersecting lines flashing hither and thither during scene changes as Georges’ slightly off-kilter nursery tunes provide just the right musical backdrop.  Carin Jacobs’ costumes are rainbow-colored gems.  Mac’s 4th Birthday Party, which concludes the play, is a veritable firework display of set, lighting, sound, and costume designs gone wild.

Whether you love children or can’t stand the little tykes, Bright Ideas is likely to tickle your funny bone and then some.  Only parents like the Bradleys could fail to be amused by this dark and twisted delight.

International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
August 28, 2009
                                                                       Photos: Shashin Desai

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