By Madeline Schulman
The new production at New Jersey Rep is titled The Substance of Bliss. The substance is easy to see. The scenic designer, Jessica Parks, might have worked from a blueprint supplied by playwright Tony Glazer to create the beautiful set, as the dialogue lovingly details the pavers in Paul and Donna’s back yard, the New Age style statue of a fairy in their little grotto, and even the Mayan sun decoration on their fence (“Too 2012,” Paul complains.)
We hear about this seemingly comfortable suburban couple’s constant renovation of their house, their plans to paint the living room (Genteel Pearl) and to affix tiles to their ceilings (but not gold tiles: “Too pimpy,” says Paul).
Paul (Christopher Daftsios) and Donna (Susan Maris) may have material substance, but bliss is absent from their lives.
Some of their problems are small to middling. Susan is never satisfied with her renovations. The couple has gone through five front doors, and she is considering putting in a swimming pool. They feel they are growing old and losing their sex drive (although the excellent actors seem youthful and attractive). The neighborhood outdoor cats use their elegant backyard as a feline lavatory.
All these are nothing next to their 15-year-old son’s drug addiction, which has wrecked his health and their lives. During the course of the play, which takes place in real time with no intermission, Donna and Paul wait for Jess to come home so they can whisk him off to rehab. They have filled the time with chores, including washing windows (the play was inspired in part by an incident from Glazer’s adolescence, when he came home from an illicit night out to find his parents had staved off anxiety by washing all the window screens).
Jess never comes home. This is not a spoiler, since the program does not lie when it lists only two actors. While his parents wait and wait for him, their interaction spirals into recriminations, arguments, and finally violently thrown furniture. I was terrified that the nail gun Paul had brandished while talking about ceiling tiles would make a Chekhovian reappearance, but a timely outside adversary gives Paul and Donna a chance to reunite and work together.
My takeaway is when you see The Substance of Bliss you will feel that bliss is harder to achieve than acquiring substance. Paul and Donna waiting for Jess in their nice home are no more blissful than Vladimir and Estragon waiting for Godot in Samuel Beckett’s wasteland.
Direction (Evan Bergman), lighting (Jill Nagle) and sound design (Merek Royce Press) all enhance the play.
Substance of Bliss continues at the NJ Rep, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, until Feb. 14. Performances are Thursdays and Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets and more information, call 732-229-3166 or visit njrep.org.