We soon learn that Fran indulges in redecoration on an almost daily basis, and not because she's a frustrated interior designer. Having given up an unsuccessful art career a few years earlier, she's now the suburban mother of Brian (Javier Picayo), a goodhearted 17-year-old. She seems to be a woman with far too much free time on her hands. Like many of us, Fran is trying in her own way to make order out of chaos; her personal chaos stems from her growing belief that the war in Iraq is wrong. When she learns on her wedding anniversary that military recruiters have been hanging around Brian's school, her commitment to protecting America's youth (specifically Brian) from becoming involved in the conflict is ratcheted up a notch.
Fran has been spending more and more time with her neighborhood vigil group -- atending their meetings and standing with them on Main Street, holding a candle and silently protesting the war. This embarrasses and angers her husband, Martin (David Rasche), a designer who served in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam war and who staunchly believes that America has some very practical reasons for toppling Saddam Hussein and his cronies.
Lovely Day takes its ironic title from the Bill Withers pop song that Martin and Fran love, but the play might more accurately be called Homage to The Goat. Consciously or not, Ayvazian has borrowed the set-up that Edward Albee used in that Pulitzer Prize-winning play: Middle-aged couple with a teenage son living in suburban splendor, right down to the same Eames chair in both rooms. More eerily, both play's protagonists have the same first name and similar occupations. But the major confluence comes late in the last scene, as Fran and Martin's potentially marriage-ending argument digresses over semantics when Martin tells Fran that she has "overstepped." Like the other Martin and his wife Stevie, who bickered over whether the top of a hill is called a crest, this couple finds that language is as dangerous a battleground as the minefield directly in front of them.
Unfortunately, their painful confrontation lacks the impact it might have in a better and longer play; Lovely Day's 75-minute length doesn't give us enough time with Martin and Fran to truly mourn the deterioration of their 30-year union. Perhaps we'd feel more deeply if we'd seen them truly happy in at least one scene before the downslide begins. And while the couple's theses about the war and its ramifications -- as well as the differences between men and women -- sound well-researched and properly emotional, they don't always come off as organic. Clearly, Ayvazian has some strong feelings to express; the question is whether or not these characters are the most believable mouthpieces for those feelings.
Fortunately for the author (and the audience), her work has been well served by director Blair Brown and the cast. My admiration for O'Connell is no secret; I recently awarded her a Best of 2005 citation for her work in Manic Flight Reaction. Here, she gives another completely authentic performance as a woman who's finally coming into her own. Rasche exquisitely limns a man puzzled by his spouse's transformation, firm in his convictions, and unaware that his sense of superiority has clouded their communications. Picayo has only a few moments in which to make Brian's presence felt, but he offers a wonderfully subtle characterization of a teenage boy who sees that his world may be seismically shifting and is unsure of how to navigate the troubled seas ahead.
Listening to the strains of Withers's song as we leave the theater, we can all dream of a world without war. We can also hope for a play more worthy of the talents of O'Connell, Rasche and Picayo. A revival of The Goat, anyone?
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