A family quietly bows their heads at the dinner table. The father, in his low, stern voice, humbly says grace: “Oh God in Heaven, which is 17 miles above the earth …”
Thus commences the eccentric and comical chaos known as “WASP,” a one-act play by Steve Martin as performed at the Yale Cabaret. The show hearkens back to the 1950s, exposing the deficiencies and dilemmas lying beneath the glossy sheen of a prototypical nuclear family. A distant cousin of the motion picture “Far From Heaven,” “WASP” intermingles moments of deep and scholarly reflection with the goofy antics that are Steve Martin’s milieu.
All the characters are built off this inanity and gladly act as caricatures of their counterparts on classic TV shows such as “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Waltons.” Dad (Michael Barker DRA ’09) is a well-read and austere ultra-Christian who actively stays emotionally distant from Mom (Kay Perdue DRA ’09), a gentle but dissatisfied Anglophile. Their teenage children, Sis (Aurelia Fisher DRA ’09) and Son (Matt Moses DRA ’09), struggle through puberty with bizarre bouts of imagination, whether it be giving birth to Jesus and subsequently marrying him (a disorder I will term the Virgin Mary Magdalene Complex) or discussing love with a mysterious extraterrestrial known only as the Premier (James Chen DRA ’08).
The actors, particularly Barker and Fisher, revel in their characters’ absurdity, thriving so well in their comedic niche that it is hard to take their moments of poignancy seriously. Their revealing monologues — and there are many — are both lengthy and erudite, reminiscent of the philosophizing in Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile.”
The show entertains most when it drips with imaginative farce. Notable examples include: Mom’s dialogue with an omniscient being (Frances Black DRA ’09) about training to become omniscient; a family fantasy of a Christmas morning as British aristocrats served by an amusing butler named Roger (Chen); and Sis’ VMM Complex that obligates her “to stay after class” with the choirmaster (Sergi Torres DRA ’09).
One of the more interesting themes of the play is its mockery of the ultra-Christian ideology in its golden years. Dad’s Creationist — heavily influenced by James Ussher, who famously calculated the date of Creation as October 23, 4004 BC — dinner prayer aside, the show is riddled with instances of inconsistency and hypocrisy that bash Neo-con Christians: The family tries to name all Ten Commandments, twitching when broken laws come up and creating new commandments as replacements for forgotten ones. In another even more hilarious episode, Dad tries to persuade the family to go to Israel “to see the sights,” treating the trip less like a pilgrimage and more like a vacation.
Set designer Kathryn Krier fashions a stereotypical ’50s kitchen taken straight out of Johnny Rocket’s, but weakly backdrops it with redundant pictures (a blender connotes a kitchen?!). The characters’ costumes are appropriately designed by Heidi Leigh Hanson DRA ’09 to be overtly conventional, such as Dad’s Brooks Brothers-esque outfit and Mom’s polka-dot dress complete with apron.
Lighting (Ted DeLong DRA ’07) switches between opaque spotlights for revelatory monologues and broad illumination to imitate household lamps, while sound designer Charles Coes DRA ’09 concocts cheesy, upbeat instrumentals that are almost the theatrical version of Muzak.
Although droll in its disposition, the show tries to place a discerning eye on 1950s society, specifically the ideal moral code and conduct that it promoted. Everyone in the play is obviously covering (thanks, Kenji Yoshino) their true feelings, as revealed in their respective monologues and fantasies. According to director Meghan Pressman DRA ’09, “The characters show their inventiveness and imagination when the dad’s not there to impose his WASP-ness. They are all trying to be these ideal characters, but they’re still human beings, and they still have problems.” But hilarity reigns supreme in this production, and only occasionally do moments of serious social critique break through.
The show ends as it begins, each character playing their part in a supposedly ideal society. Dad’s going on and on about golf, and each forced laugh from the characters slowly lets the truth set in that not everything is right in Pleasantville.