In these times when we’re all running around like Chicken Little, hunting for our passports, and wondering if Martin Luther King Jr. was deluded in having a dream, we want our night in the theater to deliver one of two elements: 1) Total escape, as you might find in a reboot of “The Odd Couple” with two accomplished actors who rival Tony Randall’s and Jack Krugman’s brilliance, or 2) A play that speaks to the issues of our day, but at the same time isn’t so heavy-handed that we’ll need to take on an extra payload of trauma after another excruciating day in the news cycle.
The first thing that will knock you out about the new showcase at the Vineyard Playhouse, “Dusty and the Big Bad World,” is the set, and here’s where scenic designer and Playhouse veteran Lisa Pegnato gets a major salute. The walls are gray, the space divided into three sets, from left to right, a typical TV office with dollies from its popular animated show; a middle area with bold black strokes of a train, a sign reading “Middle Platform,” and other doodles of a locomotive nature; and finally, the third set, with a bold black Miró-style rendering of the Capitol in the background. Just as your heart squeezes at any reminder of D.C., you see a typical government office with a plain brown desk, an American flag predominating, and a portrait of George W. Bush, of all people. Who could ever have thought his likeness could produce a groan of relief?
Playwright Cusi Cram writes of her own experience in public television in 2005, when a kids’ show got thumped by the group that cuts its checks, the Department of Education. In this fictional version, the animated hero is a dustball named Dusty, with a pack of fun, equally fuzzy friends. The real live human producer, Jessica, played with elegant stoicism by Victoria Adams-Zischke, and her star writer Nathan, performed with believable TV writer neurosis by Kevin Cirone, have done a good deed combined with a sharp PR move: They held a competition to find a lovable family of Dusty fans, based on letters written by kids. The winner would receive a guest slot on one of the shows. And guess who won, endearingly enough: young Lizzie Goldberg-Jones (played on alternating nights by Nina Moore and Kaya Seiman). Lizzie has two dads.
We’re familiar with this by now. We welcome it. We hail gay and lesbian parents as regular citizens whose kids should be treated with kindness and respect. Even the Supreme Court has weighed in that LGBT marriages are legal in states that wish for it to be legal.
So why should this be so controversial in the summer of 2017? Well, we know why: Our government is in some kind of freefall where all the social gains of the second half of the 20th century look to be up for grabs. In the play, the woman who stands in as the fictional version of the actual secretary of education of 2005, Marianne, as right-leaning and gay-squeamish as she appears to be, is probably light years more tolerant than our own modern-day Betsy DeVos. And, incidentally, Charlotte Booker plays Madame Secretary with an unbudging mane of church-lady hair, with an authenticity matched by her own sense of fun at caricaturing this modern-day Anita Bryant.
And finally there is Marianne’s new assistant, the oddly skittish and shy young Karen, bright and college-educated, and yet exuding so much insecurity we might better picture her in an orange jumpsuit, picking up trash at the side of the highway. The smelliest component of that hypothetical trash hits the fan when Marianne learns about the special “Dusty” TV episode with the cute kid and her gay dads, and leans hard on the network to scrub the show. Not just the episode, but the whole series about the cutie-patootie dust mote Dusty and his beloved buds. Marianne has a larger agenda: She’d like to see all children’s television programmed like a Sunday service: Protestant, naturally. As TV writer Kevin puts it snidely, the secretary of education will be happy “when Sesame Street is off the air and Itsy-Bitsy Jesus is all the rage.”
“Dusty” is directed in meticulous detail by MJ Bruder Munafo. Costume design is by Cynthia Bermudes; lighting design, Jeffrey Salzberg; sound design, J.B. Lamont; properties, Mona Hennessy, and J.P. Elins serves as stage manager. The play runs through July 29. Reserve tickets by logging onto mvplayhouse.org, or call the box office at 508-693-6450.