From David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet’’ to Brenda Withers’s brilliantly dislocating “The Ding Dongs, or What Is the Penalty in Portugal?’’ no tour of suburbia is complete, it seems, without a visit to its creepy side.
Another entry in that crowded category is “Blood Play,’’ a fitfully engrossing but ultimately unsatisfying production by the Brooklyn-based Debate Society, which is playing through Saturday as part of ArtsEmerson’s “The Next Thing’’ Festival.
Writers Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, who also are part of the able cast, have set “Blood Play’’ in the Chicago suburb of Skokie in the early 1950s, the better to underscore the blindness and obliviousness that underlay the Ozzie and Harriet generation’s complacency.
But “Blood Play’’ chooses essentially to make and remake that point for much of its 75-minute running time. Under Oliver Butler’s direction, the production is sometimes mordantly funny, but what’s missing amid the fun and games, for all their sinister overtones, is a sense of dramatic momentum. Consequently, the play just doesn’t land with the impact it could; we don’t feel as knocked off balance by the reverse-perspective ending as Bos and Thureen want us to be.
The characters they have created are deliberately cartoonish. The desperately effervescent Bev (Bos, in the play’s best performance) and her husband Morty (Michael Cyril Creighton) are new to the neighborhood, having just moved there from Chicago, and it shows when they host an impromptu gathering in their pine-paneled basement rec room. Set designer Laura Jellinek has rendered the rec room to period perfection, from the hi-fi to the well-stocked bar to the low-slung orange sofa. Bos’s Bev wears a wide-skirted blue dress (costumes are by Sydney Maresca) and an eager-to-please smile, while Morty, in white shirt and black-framed glasses, looks like Drew Carey’s less confident kid brother. Their nerves are jangled when a ceiling pipe bursts and roots somehow poke through. ”This house . . . this house is killing me!’’ Bev wails.
An insurance salesman named Sam (Hanlon Smith-Dorsey) shows up in a cow costume, along with a twitchy photographer named Jeep (Thureen), whose expression is fixed somewhere between a smile and a wince. They are eventually joined by Sam’s starchy and humorless wife Gail (Birgit Huppuch).
As the five of them spend an evening drinking and engaging in goofy party games whose rules are as obscure as their purpose, Bev and Morty’s troubled son Ira (Emma Galvin) is camping in the backyard, attired in an Indian costume. Ira has been horribly tormented by neighborhood bullies, and he has also been let down by the clueless and self-absorbed grownups. Now he is relying on a dark, mysterious force to achieve a sweeping revenge.
As for Bev and Morty, it’s clear in “Blood Play’’ that what they relied on was the dream of suburbia. Not a safe bet.