photo courtesy of John Lamb

Play:        “Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake)”

Group:        Echo Theatre Company

Venue:        Theatre 134, ArtSpace at Crestwood Court, Watson at Sappington

Dates:        December 9, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17, 18, 19

Tickets:    $15-$20; contact 800-838-3006 or www.echotheatrecompany.org

Story:    Clara is having a tough time.  It’s been a year since her husband tragically died in an accident at their apartment while putting up a Christmas tree.  Since then, Clara has dealt with her own grief as well as being concerned with the behavior of her pubescent daughter, Janice.  The latter isn’t doing well in school, doesn’t have any friends and mostly spends her days in her room providing disturbing dialogue for her dolls.

    While Clara seeks advice from her sister Barbara, a woman who lives with 57 cats, her life is even more precarious than she realized.  Janice has given her mother a holiday gift list with seven seemingly disparate and unusual items, another cause for concern for her perpetually worried mother.  Additionally, Clara and Janice unknowingly are endangered by their very apartment, which seems to have emotional issues of its own stemming from its once proud heritage as a mansion now fallen into serious disrepair, and which may have murderous consequences.  Perhaps only their respective celebrity heroes, Harrison Ford and Justin Timberlake, can save them from imminent danger.

Highlights:    Artistic director Eric Little once again has found an arresting and unusual gem to captivate his Echo Theatre audiences.  This one is an intriguing and engaging work by Sheila Callaghan that features a role for a talking apartment.  Furthermore, it is brimming with intelligent dialogue, a clever plot and interesting characters who pack plenty of mystery and whimsy into one quick act that is carefully and lovingly directed by Little for maximum effect.

Other Info:    Little’s quintet of performers is equal to the talents of the clever Callaghan, who is a writer for the Showtime series, “United States of Tara.”  Kirsten Wylder is splendid as the emotionally fragile mom who haphazardly whips up gourmet dinners while fretting about rusty radiators and dilapidated drywall in her cold and clammy abode.  Colleen Backer presents a perceptive portrayal of the distant Barbara, who relates more easily with her feline family than her sister and niece, demonstrating once again her deft touch with comic dialogue and situations.

    Newcomer Chelsea Serocke is remarkably convincing as the disturbed daughter, capturing the lass’s emotional problems in delightful bits with her dolls as well as a passionate fantasy encounter with her heartthrob, a precious Justin Timberlake.  His on-stage namesake, Justin Ivan Brown, shines as the oddly appealing teen sensation as well as a swashbuckling Harrison Ford in mom Clara’s own escape from her scary reality.  Both of his performances offer humorous relief from the more disturbing issues in the play.

    The real enchantment, though, is Terry Meddows’ measured portrayal of the anthropomorphic apartment.  At turns sinister, sensual and shy, Meddows’ character provides the underpinning for the edginess and surrealism in Callaghan’s creative script, jumping out from various crevices in the most unlikely moments to add to the funky brevity of the situation.

    Little’s set design whimsically depicts the shabby state of the once-proud edifice’s current state, including dingy paint and crumbling walls, all complemented with Maureen Hanratty’s focused lighting, which is especially enhanced with a shrouded reference to the father’s earlier death.  Little’s creepy sound design adds to the effect as well as the quirky costumes he’s collected for the characters (apart from Clara’s sensible attire), right down to Backer’s clunky sneakers.

    While the play is barely longer than its full title, “Crumble” is an intoxicating and precisely executed adventure into the bizarre.

Rating:    A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.