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at the Laguna Playhouse

In her dark 2004 comedy, Catherine Butterfield applies a sort of Hitchcockian Zeitgeist to the post–9/11 world, wherein housewives politely issue "TAD" (terrorist alert day) warnings to other parents, a sense of panic underlies all activity, and every new face is potentially suspect as an enemy of liberty. In the play's West Coast premiere, director Andrew Barnicle and company don't try to overplay their hand, toning down both the early scenes' arch tone (can you say broken fourth wall?) and the Sturm und Drang of the later ones. The result is a close-up look at Gretchen, whose natural urges have been suppressed for so long, she's vulnerable to the advances of Matthew, the handsome young stranger she and her husband hire to tutor their son. If anything, though, Butterfield doesn't burrow far enough into Gretchen's psyche, and while the play's climax suffices, its denouement wanders into dangerously surreal territory. What should have been a solid psychological thriller percolates at a more superficial level before veering toward Beckett.

Amy Tribbey lets quivering fear and desperation show through Gretchen's chipper, artsy façade. As Gretchen's affair liberates her, Tribbey bursts with euphoria laced with guilt. Ray DeJohn's Matthew, whose world view is more nuanced than Gretchen's, is emphatic and direct even while gentle and kind, leaving us as mystified as Gretchen regarding his motives and political ties. The play's title refers not just to Matthew, whom Gretchen suspects is part of a terrorist sleeper cell, but to Gretchen, husband Bill, and sister Vivien, each of whom in some way sleepwalks through life.

Tim Meinelschmidt's Bill is a no-nonsense, self-absorbed chauvinist. Struggling for fame as an actor, Clarinda Ross' Vivien is bracingly brassy. Cynthia Beckert, Eric Curtis Johnson, and Jeff Marlow deliver a raft of deft character roles. Barnicle's staging, which keeps things moving back and forth across Bruce Goodrich's expansive, multilevel set, points up the story's true meaning: how disconnected people are, how fragmented are our lives, and how willing we are to see the best, and the worst, in others.

Presented by and at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach. Tue.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 2 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Feb. 18-Mar. 19. (949) 497-2787.

Reviewed by Eric Marchese

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