"Unsuspecting Susan" Chester, played here by the remarkable Celia Imrie, is the epitome of an English country lady, complete with the pleated skirt and pearls. Directly addressing the audience, she declares, "No, I wouldn't say I was a bit of a snob. I'd say I was a tremendous snob," as she amusingly shares details of village gossip. In her 11-room house, she is alone: Her feckless husband left her some time ago and her troubled son, Simon, is now in London. Susan's entertaining riffs soon center on son Simon and his turbulent history -- including his suicide attempts and anger management classes. But now Simon is living with Jamal, a nice young man from Egypt, in a little flat that Susan has found to be "spotlessly clean." "They're just flatmates," Susan adds just in case the audience should think for a moment that her beloved son is "that way inclined." Via Susan's cozy chats, playwright Stewart Permutt effortlessly delivers exposition in what initially appears to be an engaging character study.
Then the playwright springs a dramatic and genuine surprise, giving the play political ramifications and in the process providing Susan with pathos and the possible trappings of tragedy. Suddenly Permutt has much more to say. He presents the two faces of contemporary England: the broiling, multicultural life of the cities and the traditional, unruffled ways of the countryside, each of which would like to deny the very existence of the other. Without belaboring the point, Permutt suggests that Susan's denial represents a much larger national issue.
Presented as part of the Brits Off Broadway Festival, "Unsuspecting Susan," adroitly directed by Lisa Forrell, marks Imrie's American stage debut. Her Susan is funny, irritating, and touching in a detailed performance of considerable technical skill. She has the wonderful ability to suggest more than what's actually said, providing Permutt's slim but subtly provocative play with another thought-provoking dimension.