Orlagh Cassidy, Paul Fitzgerald, and Seana Kofoed in Bright Ideas(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Orlagh Cassidy, Paul Fitzgerald, and Seana Kofoed in Bright Ideas
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
When you write an unsuccessful play and call it Bright Ideas, as Eric Coble has, you're tempting critics with that title. In a case like this, I become Oscar Wilde: I can resist anything but temptation.

I'm willing to grant that Coble's subject could be a bright idea: The stop-at-nothing desperation that well-heeled urban and suburban parents evidence in trying to get their children into private schools. (This is, of course, a notion that may have appeal to a limited segment of the theatergoing public.) It might even be a bright and funny idea to liken the focal parents -- here, Joshua Bradley (Paul Fitzgerald) and Genevra Bradley (Seana Kofoed) -- to Macbeth and his determined spouse on their cutthroat journey to the Scottish throne.

Yes, Shakespeare lovers, Coble helps himself to a handful of plot developments and another handful of scattered details from the Bard's Macbeth. He pointedly depicts one homicidal escapade and refers to others while following the Bradleys as they remove obstacles to their (never seen) son Mac's matriculation at Bright Ideas, the pre-school that strivers in the Bradleys' unspecified community want their privileged offspring to attend. You see, the couple's son is first on the waiting list and, as the Bradleys figure it, they can only get him tapped for admission if they get rid of a parent whose child is already enrolled.

The arriviste couple don't bloody their hands as Shakespeare's marrieds so famously do; instead, they soil them with pesto sauce while Genevra mutters three-witches-type doggerel from a recipe and wonders, "Why are a mortar and pestle floating in the air?" The parent they want to get out of the way with the poisoned pesto (this is beginning to sound like a Danny Kaye routine from The Court Jester) is Genevra's business colleague, Denise (Orlagh Cassidy in one of five roles). She's been invited to a fateful dinner that the uncertain Genevra and the adamant Joshua plan and then execute (pun intended) after much flummery. With Denise out of the way and with the Bright Ideas Parent Handbook at last theirs, the Bradleys are still unhappy about Mac's progress as he nears his fourth birthday -- an age by which, they believe, a child's character is irrevocably shaped.

So they continue their misdeeds, Genevra now the rampaging one and Joshua the drunk one worried about rubbing stubborn pesto spots off his hands. The Macbeths -- er, Bradleys -- continue to prove adept at getting away with murder, even as other parents and teachers with whom they tangle begin to suspect that something is rotten in the state of -- woops, wrong play! Among those whom they befriend for a time are Ross Bain (Colman Domingo in one of his four roles) and Lynzie Bain (Linda Marie Larson in one of her five roles), and among the characters mentioned but not seen are "the Birnam party." This, needless to say is another of Coble's cute references to Macbeth; you'll remember that "Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to High Dunsinane Hill shall come against him."

The catch with potentially bright ideas is that, no matter how incandescent, they need to be brought to fruition with equally bright expertise. Coble stumbles here. In a farce -- and this must be one, since Rob Odorisio's set includes three swinging doors -- exaggeration has its place, of course. But Coble's exaggerations of the Bradleys, who represent the kind of couples that show up in articles about elite schools on the pages of New York magazine et al., aren't funny. They're just loud and attenuated.

Linda Marie Larson, Seana Kofoed, and Paul Fitzgerald(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Linda Marie Larson, Seana Kofoed, and Paul Fitzgerald
(Photo © Dixie Sheridan)
Several sequences go on too long; the pesto dinner, during which Denise puts the moves on Bradley while Genevra is in the kitchen blending and pureeing, is one of them. Tain't funny, McGee! (Or would "Tain't funny, Macduff" be more appropriate?) Coble also includes a windy routine wherein Genevra, using a cell phone on a plane, repeatedly contends with an increasingly exasperated flight attendant (Domingo again). At another point, Genevra and Bright Ideas' chief executive administrator Mrs. Lennox (Larson again) pull on hand puppets called Mr. Doodle and Mr. Frowny to hold a tedious conversation. (This New York theatrical season has been heavily populated with puppets: The last-sighted hand puppets were the one called Joyce Carol Oates in Recent Tragic Events and the one that looked like Burr Tillstrom's Oliver J. Dragon in Like I Say. Given the frequency with which these inanimate critters continue to crop up, is it time for a moratorium to be declared on them?)

Because Coble's over-the-top script seems to require over-the-top performances, it may be unfair to place blame on the cast for being so far over-the-top that they seem to be floating somewhere above Cleveland -- and it may be unfair to blame director John Rando for allowing or goading said actors to avoid subtlety as if it were a disease. Wherever blame should rest, the upshot is the same: This show is too big, too raucous, too alienating.

Fitzgerald and Kofoed have the most to do as the conniving parents and are therefore the most patience-trying. Fitzgerald is so busy folding himself into funny positions that he can barely stand still. Occasionally, this works, as when he imitates Kenny G. for reasons that won't be explained here; more often, it doesn't. Kofoed is full of moues and pigeon-toed stances. (In keeping with the Macbeth motif, she also gets to wear the tartans that costume designer Gregory A. Gale has chosen.) By play's end, when Genevra has lost all touch with reality, Kofoed has the lunatic's glint, all right, but there's nothing comical about it.

Cassidy, Domingo, and Larson hurry into and out of Gale's suitable-to-the-suburbs fashions and Darlene Dannenfelser's wigs nimbly but don't do much to minimize the unamusing frenzy. On the other hand, James Vermeulen's lighting and Fabian Obispo's sound, which is given to occasional jaunty versions of nursery rhymes, is helpfully cheering. Ultimately, though, Bright Ideas isn't one.