As in many of Richard Greenberg's plays, characters take second place to interesting turns of phrase, sparkling one-liners, and arcane philosophical meanderings. But they do it in such a stylish way and with such boundless charm and good cheer that it is easy to avoid quibbling with tiny details about plot and meaningful motivation. Incest, homosexuality, and infidelity are the big three in this 10th play that Greenberg has had produced at SCR. Softening the edges of those taboos, however, are the splendid upscale natures of the principals and the comedy swirling around them.
Jeffrey (John de Lancie) and Bess (Linda Gehringer) Lippin live in a gorgeous home, paid for by their acumen in business and publishing. Bess is a writer of cookbooks and a sometime television personality. The angst-ridden Jeffrey is writing a book pairing business and art, a notion that unnerves him even though Bess cheerleads him forward. Next door live Elaine (Mary Joy) and her curmudgeonly mother-in-law, Sadie (the irrepressible Ann Guilbert), also writers. Rounding out the cast are the Lippin's adopted adult children, Billy (James Yaegashi), Thad (Terrence Riordan), and Juliet (Dawn-Lyen Gardner). Thad and Juliet have returned home from a 15-month European jaunt, and Billy has arrived with a grandiose inferiority complex. The humorous mixture of personality types and Greenberg's idiosyncratic complications make for a two-hour frolic, even though most plot bombshells fizzle.
Guilbert steals the show, although every member of the cast is pluperfect in creating three-dimensional, highly articulated characters. Few modern directors execute pacing and panache better than Mark Rucker. His actors are allowed those wonderful pauses and studied reactions so necessary for fine comedy. Tony Fanning's delicious set, sound by Steven Cahill, and lighting by Peter Maradudin round out the fine elements of this production.
When the befuddled Sadie cries, "Who are you people, and what are you doing here," at the beginning and end of the play, Greenberg wisely doesn't produce all the answers. He simply churns the waters of suburbia, produces intellectually stimulating situations, and lets the audience reckon with the results. It is fluff of a very high order.
"A Naked Girl on the Appian Way," presented by and at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Apr. 9-May 8. $27-56. (714) 708-5555.