The sad truth of life is that great loss is always just around the corner from great love: parents follow the inevitable arc of sickness and death, lovers leave before we've stopped loving them, and children die before their time. Max knows this. In this West Coast premiere of Richard Dresser's new comedy, Wonderful World, Max tells his fiancée, Jennifer, "It's part of loving someone, thinking about them being dead."
You could offer such an insight with a tenderness that would speak volumes about the grief that comes with love. But not Max. He delivers the line as part of a confession: he's had fantasies of pushing Jennifer in front of a bus. Not that he intends to kill her, mind you—he's just thinking about it. But it's a truth Jennifer doesn't want to hear, and it pushes the couple apart, triggering something ugly in both of them and in their families.
Dresser could examine the theme of not asking the question if you don't want to hear the answer. Or he could even be updating Pirandello's The Pleasure of Honesty. Unfortunately, the best he and director Andrew Barnicle can cobble together is a handful of amusing one-liners and a few smirking comments about people hoping to make the world better: despite the fact that the four main characters are in helping professions—a nonprofit exec, a guidance counselor, a motivational speaker and a customer-service rep—they're assholes, barely able to help themselves, let alone others.
That's a reactionary message at best, and it seems even Dresser thinks it's half-assed: after intermission, he chucks that theme and settles into a cheeseball plot about a parental illness that brings the warring family together so we can feel good about characters he has just spent an entire act knifing. The play becomes an example of what it set out to condemn: tough things are better left unsaid, and false conceptions—familial and social—are better than reality.
Wonderful World at Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-2787. Tues.-Fri., 7:30 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 7:30 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Through Aug. 26. $38-$45.