Upon entering McCarter Theatre Center's Berlind Theatre for the world-premiere production of Christopher Durang's new comedy Turning Off the Morning News, we find ourselves immediately confronted by Beowulf Boritt's colorfully skewed set. And by skewed, I mean literally skewed: All of the houses onstage are slanted on the sides, giving an otherwise normal American suburb the feel of a Norman Rockwell canvas refracted through a Looney Tunes funhouse mirror. This preceding stage image turns out to be a harbinger of the insanity to come.
"Insane" is the only way to accurately describe Jimmy (John Pankow) and Polly (Kristine Nielsen), the couple who live with their adopted son Timmy (Nicholas Podany) in an unspecified Everytown, USA. The nature of their madness, however, touches on current social anxieties. Jimmy is so disillusioned with his dead-end life that he has become obsessed with the idea of going to a nearby shopping mall and shooting random people before turning a rifle on himself. Polly's desperation to put an optimistic face on her husband's behavior means that she's more devastated by the destruction of a precious plant than by the possibility that her husband could take the lives of innocents at a mall. Timmy comes off as the most normal of the family, and his way of quietly internalizing his frustration before occasionally exploding with angry outbursts are the inevitable result of having to live under the roof of these crazies 24/7.
Other oases of relative sanity come in the forms of Clifford (Robert Sella) and Salena (Rachel Nicks), the two friends cohabiting next door who gradually uncover the true nature of their eccentric neighbors. Even Clifford, though, seems a bit off-kilter in his first few moments onstage, his general aura of unease eventually revealed as the byproduct of a personal loss that still haunts him. His anxiety, however, is paltry compared with that of Rosalind (Jenn Harris), another neighbor who is so afraid of skin cancer that she walks around in public with a white bag over her head in a manner that makes her look distressingly like a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Broad in its whimsy and blaring in its mile-wide caricatures, Turning Off the Morning News is a far cry from the more grounded human comedy of Durang's last play, Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike, not to mention the more focused satire of earlier works like Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You and Beyond Therapy. With the characters' quirks evoking timely ongoing debates about gun control and climate change, perhaps Durang believes such extreme wackiness is the only way to deal with an especially batty time in American history. But anyone expecting to feel challenged or even implicated in the characters' behavior here will come away empty-handed, with Durang inviting us to do little more than laugh at his eccentrics from a comfortable distance.
No Durang play is without moments of comic brilliance. Polly's vision of a Joan Rivers-hosted fashion show in heaven is a particularly uproarious bit of nuttiness, as is her own personal interpretation of the basis of original sin (to put it simply: "Eve was too chatty"). His general tilt toward brazen exaggeration of human behavior doesn't entirely forestall empathy for some of his characters. Clifford's traumatic backstory may be clichéd, but it does make his refusal to pay attention to television news — too depressing, he justifies — understandable. And under the direction of Emily Mann, the cast is nothing if not admirable in its commitment to the material, with Nielsen, Pankow, and Harris going impressively over-the-top in their cartoonish performances, and Sella bringing a "little boy lost" quality to his performance that occasionally injects jolts of real pathos. All of the production's huffing and puffing, however, is in service of a play that turns human anguish into a wall-to-wall carnival of grotesquerie, as suffocating as it is slight.
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