“The Substance of Bliss” is a new play by Tony Glazer (“Stain,” “Safe,” “American Star”) that is being presented by NJ Rep in Long Branch through Feb. 14. But it’s no Valentine’s Day-ready charmer.
Yes, it’s about a couple, and they seem reasonably happy on the surface. But as it goes on, more and more is revealed about the rocky state of their union, and their scarred psyches. There may have been some bliss in their relationship, at one point, but it’s long gone.
In the program, the time is defined as “present day,” and the setting as “a backyard somewhere in suburban America.” Middle-aged, middle-class spouses Donna (Susan Maris) and Paul (Christopher Daftsios) start off with some idle chatter about the state of their backyard. She, it turns out, is a serial redecorator. He seems overly upset that neighborhood cats are defecating there.
It becomes clear that they are both on edge, and focusing on trivial stuff to avoid what’s really bothering them: Their 15-year-old, drug-addicted son, Jess, who is out for the evening. They want to get him into rehab, but he has to come home first. And they’re not sure he will.
And so they wait. And wait. And wait. It never occurs to them to go out looking for him. Or perhaps they just have no idea where to look. But they just hang around, feeling helpless — “Nothing we do will change what he has in store for himself,” Susan sighs — and occasionally snapping at each other. This is their life in a microcosm. They’re trapped in their joyless marriage, and their pretty suburban home, and it doesn’t look like there’s any relief in sight.
There’s a good, cathartic moment when the two unite against a common enemy — a nosy neighbor, unseen by the audience — but mostly, I found little to like in “The Substance of Bliss.” It’s a plotless portrait of a marriage, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the more you get to know these people, the emptier and more uninteresting — and more disconnected from each other — they seem. I kept wishing that Jess would show up, just because he might have brought more of a spark to the play than these two characters did.
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