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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Big, Bad Suburbs: Where the Sun Never Sets

Jim Ligon and Andrea Bianchi
Playwrights Theatre is presenting the world premiere of the surrealist fantasy Where the Sun Never Sets by Bob Clyman. Despite an intermission break, the play is actually an overextended one-act play which would be more effective at half of its hour and forty-five minute (more or less) length.

Where the Sun Never Sets is a satire attacking the absolutist and selfish moral values engendered here by suburban conformity and conservatism as personified by a mythic, false god. Bob, a laid back, content philosophy professor, and his wife Annie, a liberal, legal services defense attorney, are moving from their too small city apartment to a house in the suburbs so their two sons will have more room and a backyard to play in. No sooner have they moved into their new house when a linen suited male introducing himself as Monsignor Calibar from the Unity Church comes to their door. Calibar makes observations which suggest that he has magical powers. He tells Annie that she should always be happy and wear expensive clothes. The sound of wind chimes heard by Annie twice during this conversation repeats again and again in Annie's head as she abandons her belief in helping those economically disadvantaged and embraces Calibar's prescription for her by preparing to upgrade her home furnishings.

Annie now spends all her time shopping, trades their Subaru in for an SUV, expresses racial bigotry, inveigles against government handouts (as well as other shibboleths of the political left) and writes checks for which she has no funds in the bank. And then she just disappears. Bob becomes certain that some alien being has taken control of her body. As Bob is telling their friends Howard and Beth about this, their odd response convinces him that they too have been taken over.

Thus begins a long series of absurdist scenes in which, beginning with the police (whom Bob contacts to report the kidnapping of Annie), with one exception, each and every person with whom Bob comes in contact eventually turns out to be a disciple of Calibar. The exception is a hitchhiker who turns out to be a husband who is in precisely Bob's position. Is there a hint of misogyny here in the midst of an otherwise down the line politically correct polemic?

There is a happy ending that is suitable to the jocular tone of the play. After he somehow manages to get them to realize that their thoughts are not their own, Bob manages to convince a couple of Calibar's minions that Calibar is a false leader who has lied to them rather than deliver truth, as he told them that there were no absolutes, and as that statement is an absolute. This quote is attributed to Calibar even though throughout the play, it is the liberal view that morality is relative, and the conservative one that there are absolute values. Calibar is banished, and Annie returns home, her old liberal goodness restored.

All of this is presented in an absurdist comic style which evokes a fair number of chuckles. However, the hilarity level would have to be increased exponentially to compensate for other deficiencies. While it is by design that nobody is depicted in a realistic fashion, the writing is simultaneously too jocular and too self satisfiedly doctrinaire for an audience to feel that anything meaningful is at stake. As written, Bob is too laid back and folksy to be a convincing philosophy professor. This would be far less of a problem if the play were considerably shorter. Furthermore, there are glib put downs of suburbia that, at least here in northern New Jersey, do not ring true (even allowing for the fact that the play was written 12 years ago). The play makes references to the suburbs being located in the valley, so it's likely that a less racially and ethnically mixed area of the country is author Bob Clyman's model. I would also suggest that anyone on either end of the political spectrum who labels all opposing positions as hateful and evil is fishing in poisonous waters.

Director John Pietrowski, who has long demonstrated an affinity for absurdist farce, has maintained the perfect tone to maximize the values inherent in the play. The jocularity of the performances is never allowed to descend into raucous farce or light frivolity. Pietrowski has his actors employ a deadpan style in which their expressions and body movements convey dead seriousness while their line readings re-enforce the absurd humor of the dialogue.

Annie is the most realistically written role in the play. There is even an interesting first scene set up to her fall from liberal grace which gives false promise of nuanced political thought to come. Andrea Bianchi nicely shifts between the two faces of Annie with great credibility. Although his role is too loosely written, Jim Ligon nicely limns Bob's increasing befuddlement and anxiety. Daniel Robert Sullivan is a convincingly not-of-this-world Calibar when he first visits Bob and Annie. Later, he conveys Calibar's more overt evil while maintaining the play's absurdist humor. He also briefly plays The Hitchhiker. Joel Leffert, Jane Keitel, Brendan Patrick Burke and Michael Irvin Pollard lend crucial support throughout. Each plays three roles, whose ultimate identity is that of a minion of Calibar.

There can be no doubt that author Bob Clyman is clever and imaginative. In keeping with its mission, Playwrights Theatre has admirably given his play a first rate premiere production, Sadly, as an absurdist farce, Where the Sun Never Sets lacks the structure to justify its length, and, as a political treatise, it is too glib and simplistic.

The title, Where the Sun Never Sets, refers to a suburban shopping mall. My objection to most indoor shopping malls is that they are places where the sun never shines, the snow never falls, et cetera and so forth.

Where the Sun Never Sets continues performances (Thurs 2/8 - 5:30p.m./ 2/15 - 3 p.m. & 8p.m./ Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun. 3 p.m.) through February 18, 2007 at Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, Madison, NJ 070940. Box Office: 973-514-1787; online

Where the Sun Never Sets by Bob Clyman; directed by John Pietrowski

Cast (in alphabetical order):
Annie…………………………………Andrea Bianchi
Figure/Halihan/Burt………brendan Patrick Burke
Beth/Binky/Priscilla………………………...Jane Keitel
Howard/Monahan/Chip…………………...Joel Leffert
Bob…………………………………………….Jim Ligon
Ground/Hoolihan/Harold…..Michael Irvin Pollard
Calibar/Hitchhiker……….Daniel Robert Sullivan

Photo: Carol Rosegg

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