The lights go down and actor Richard McFadyen GRAD appears behind a sliding glass door mowing a lawn. It’s a disconcerting moment, because the typical American cliché of the suburban dad cutting the grass with his shorts and knee length socks gets inverted; this time we’re on the inside looking out on a world that remains only partially visible. And symbolically, we’re moving from the outside facade to the inner core of truth. And I think I understate the case when I say that truth is damn ugly.
But it’s the kind of sinful ugliness we want to watch, and in this respect Edward Albee’s “Everything in the Garden,” the first show in the Brandeis Theater Company’s new season, hits the mark. The show, adapted from a drawing room farce by Giles Cooper, doesn’t try to preach about the destructive forces of bourgeois capitalism and the American Dream gone awry, because it would rather laugh at them. It’s a kind of laughter that leaves you with a painful stitch in your side, but the fact that you feel guilty about laughing is part of the point.
McFayden plays Richard, an earnest yet discontented suburban father opposite Tanya Dougherty’s GRAD Jenny, a slightly less earnest and slightly more discontented housewife. The couple, which performed together last season in “Tea and Flowers, Purity and Grace,” was positively radiant. They explored all the complexities and subtleties of Richard and Jenny’s antagonistically tender relationship with precision, never yielding to stereotyping impulses. Their dialogue crackled with intensity and their chemistry gave the play a surprisingly human spark considering the plot.
Richard and Jenny are beset by the typical suburban malaise resulting from their lack of money in comparison with their ambitions and the Joneses. And in comparison with the central couple, the Joneses look pretty horrific, which says quite a bit. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Jenny gets the opportunity to earn some extra money from a charmingly perverse Mrs. Toothe (McCaela Donovan GRAD) in a nefarious job. Despite her husband’s insistence that a housewife with a job is a disgrace, she goes for it anyway. When her efforts to conceal the cash she receives goes awry, the shallow foundations of their “Stepford Wives” lives crumble.
The scene in which Richard receives a mysterious package full of dollar bills and discovers hidden stashes of money all over the house is brilliantly staged. Searching in all the nooks and crannies of the living room to discover mountains of cash everywhere, Richard loses all sense of reality despite gaining the thing he wanted most. The bills first become sensual, seductive objects for caressing, only to erupt like infections throughout the house. Beyond the obvious “be careful what you wish for” message, the scene performs symbolic transmutations of money that reverberate throughout the play.
The second act takes place over a single garden party in the house, and it featured several undergraduate actors as neighbors, including Eric Engelstein ’10, Caroline Cappello ’11, Nathan Hakimi ’11, Sam Fuchs ’11, Alexandra Weinstein ’12, and Linnea Sage ’10. The men played up their stodginess and the women presented a vapid flightiness that made them all seem interchangeable, which might have been the intention. Nevertheless, despite the proliferation of actors in the second act, the energy from Richard and Jenny’s relationship felt diluted.
Overall I found the actors dexterous in challenging roles, as they snapped and fizzled their way through trauma and disillusionment. The subject and setting have become American staples, but poking fun at suburbanites has never felt so wickedly fun.