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THEATER REVIEW : Domestic Cretins at Large : The funny, astutely directed 'Meet the Wilsons' features a family that is both dysfunctional and maniacal.

March 05, 1993|RAY LOYND | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ray Loynd writes regularly about theater for The Times.

Periodically, the housewife in "Meet the Wilsons" at the Victory Theatre will pick up a dinner plate and hurl it fiercely against the dining room wall, crockery shattering the calm of the cheerful, middle-class, all-American Wilson clan.

It's white bread "Father Knows Best," amusingly introduced by familiar sitcom jingles and smiling faces that turn alternately scowly in twisted theatrical asides full of a demented subtext.

It's a funny show, beginning with the performances shaped by the astute direction of Jules Aaron and, secondarily, by playwright Richard Polak's comically dark stiletto plunged into the TV sitcom heart of a family that's not only dysfunctional but maniacal.

The show has one major problem: It doesn't know how to stop itself and the ending is stupid instead of workable. But the rest is funny. And one of the reasons for the show's skill is that Polak and Aaron began work shopping and developing the comedy a year ago, and the crispness and readiness of its core material obviously owe a debt to the long preparation time.

On the surface, the comedy sounds hackneyed--social satirists have been plumbing this territory for decades--but what earmarks the production is the affability of seriously grotesque characters. That's not an easy bridge to cross, but this production negotiates the dangerous rapids with aplomb.

You just know by their metallic and polished facades that these domestic cretins watch a lot of Oprah, Geraldo and Phil.

Dad (wonderfully smirky Tom Ormeny) comes home from the office, plops into his collapsible leather chair and pulls out People magazine while secretly lusting after his unseen secretary. He detests his snotty, cleavage-baring, busty stepdaughter (Ruth de Sosa), but like a Cheshire cat in his Walter Mitty fantasies, he sexually eyes her, too.

You feel affection toward these creeps, even though the weaselly stockbroker son (hilarious Gregory Thirloway) is always chortling "Interest rates are up!" and masturbates with gun magazines, the aforementioned outcast daughter (the poisonous de Sosa) seduces her sister's fiance (amusingly nerdish Matt Walker), and that sister (Barbie doll-like Beth Kennedy) demurely poses on the couch, fanning her floral print dress over it like a fashion layout in "Good Housekeeping."

But for supreme suppression, nobody matches frantic mom (hyperventilating Cheryl Anderson) as the show's central nervous wreck in her best, controlled Donna Reed mode. Sexually rebuffed by her husband, frozen in a '50s time warp, determined to please everyone, the mother is the personification of denial. As satire goes, Anderson not so simply takes a cliche part and makes it her own.

The achievement is collaborative, including scenic and lighting designer D Martyn Bookwalter, costume designer Meg Gilbert and sound designer Chuck Estes.

Where and When What: "Meet the Wilsons." Location: The Victory Theatre, 3326 Victory Blvd., Burbank. Hours: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, indefinitely. Price: $15-$17. Call: (818) 841-5421.

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