‘Lives of Reason’ premiere at Two River Theater more soap opera than drama

The world premiere of “Lives of Reason” at the Two River Theater in Red Bank was not what I was expecting.

Taking place during a faculty cocktail party at a college in the northeast, it “exposes the challenges of intellectual life — and what happens when one woman’s secret passions explode and her authentic self is revealed,” according to the press release.

What we have is a 110-minute  cocktail party from Hell (no intermission) that veers between a soap opera and a satire with audience laughter in places I’m not so sure the authors intended.

“Lives of Reason” was written by theater founder and visionary Robert Rechnitz, a former professor of American literature for 35 years at Monmouth University, and Kenneth Stunkel, a professor of history for years and dean of both the humanities and social services, and of the arts and sciences departments, also at the West Long Branch school.  The production was directed by former 2RT artistic director Jonathan Fox.

I certainly hope war-zone events like this one are not common occurrences on campus. Frustrated wife Ilona (Mairin Lee) dominates the 10-character contemporary play. How she kept her “passions” secret for the past six years she’s been on campus can only be explained, I suppose, by the first-rate nervous breakdown she seems to be having almost from the moment the play begins.

One minute flirting, the next screaming abuse and profanities, before intentionally cutting her hand with a knife and later putting a gun to her head — how much attention does one woman need? And that’s after she tears up and tries to burn what may be an unknown Shakespeare sonnet discovered by her I-love-him, I-hate-him husband. The good news is Lee does all this really well, although her character is as irritating as a persistent mosquito.

And the reaction from the academics, including her husband Jeffrey (Matthew Lieff Christian) and school president Jacob Stein (John C. Vennema giving an excellent, down-to-earth performance) and the others who have been called pompous bully, empty vessels, twits and ignorant fools — she’s a remarkable woman who seems unhappy, they agree.

This probably was the kind of party George and Martha attended  before they went home in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff,” Edward Albee’s 1962 ground-breaking play about a breakdown of a middle-aged couple’s marriage. But Martha would have had her hands full with Ilona, who came to America from Budapest, apparently leaving her accent behind.

She was helped along with a ticket and entry to America as well as Columbia University by Matthew Livingston (Peter Rini), a very wealthy and very handsome man who eventually proposes but she  rejects (not too sure why). She later marries Jeff. Of course, she now remembers it was Matthew who rejected her (hence my confusion).

Unbeknownst to Matthew, Ilona’s husband teaches at the school to which he is considering gifting millions of dollars.

The cocktail party is a meet-and-greet hosted by Andrew Hedman (Jay Russell), a prissy, bow-tie wearing bachelor devoted to his mother; the kind of person who invites guests then wails loudly when they spill red wine on his carpet. He is jockeying to fill the empty position of dean in his department, the same job Ilona wants for her somewhat reluctant husband.

Also on hand is Edna Clare (Maureen Silliman), a king. forgiving woman helping Hedman set up the party; her husband Hartley Clare, who orders her around (William Parry); Sam DeLuca (Philip Goodwin), who finds academia and trout fishing about equal in importance; and Carl Cooper (Maurice Jones), the school’s self-described Marxist who is having an affair with Ilona.

The only person who seems to understand just how scary Ilona is is teenager Jimmy (Patrick Monaghan), who has but one scene as he delivers several bags of ice — she answers the door with “The iceman cometh” — and he can’t wait to get away from Ilona’s seductive clutches.

Later, when Matthew Livingston knocks on the door he is greeted with, well, do I really need to say it?

And speaking of doors, scenic designer Charlie Corcoran has created a remarkable set in the Marion Huber Theater, a black-box space configured differently than I’ve seen it done before with the audience seated on three sides of the set featuring Gustav Stickley- styled bookcases and paneling with stained glass, as well as  a suspended ceiling with Mission lighting fixtures.

A pastoral scene sits over the fireplace and a portrait of Algernon Swinburne, whom our host worships almost as much as his mother, has a place of honor by his desk.

A door leads to another room that exists only so the cast can leave the main playing space to, for instance, look at the northern lights, so two other cast members can be alone, such as when Ilona tells Cooper their affair is over and she is  dumping him.

Or, when Ilona is alone with President Stein, an entomologist by degree who, after this evening says he prefers his spiders because they have eight legs, no argument. She tells him she is leaving her husband because “I want more!”, but has no idea what that more is.

And then Ilona is alone with Livingstone, they embrace again, after having snuck a few kisses earlier, and she announces she and he can run away together immediately. Obviously, he and his money can solve all of her problems and get her away from these academic hypocrites. Only he can’t, he says. Wait for it …. he’s married.

At the performance I attended, people burst out laughing at that line. I’ve just got a feeling that’s not what the playwrights intended.

Lives of Reason

Two River Theater, 21 Bridge Avenue, Red Bank, through Feb. 7.

Tickets: $37-$65.

Click here for more info.