Who wouldn't want someone like the shuffling, overalls-wearing, white-haired Mr. Bundy living next door? Decrepit but twinkly-eyed, the sweetheart of a senior spends his quiet days fabricating yard decorations for his neighbors. He's got a slide and a swing set out back for their kids, and the old man even volunteers to baby-sit for his next-door neighbor's beautiful prepubescent daughter. Things couldn't be better in this little corner of suburban heaven. From this idyllic landscape, playwright Jane Martin (generally believed to be Jon Jory) sends this moralizing sermon named Mr. Bundy, directed by Brandon Smith at the Actors Theatre, into some dark territory, stumbling over its own good intentions as it struggles along.
Happy days turn ugly when two strangers arrive. Jimmy Ray Bosun (Robert Lott) and his big-haired wife, Tianna (Aimee McCrory), show up on Robert and Catherine Ferreby's doorstep to let them in on a dirty little secret about dear old Mr. Bundy (Jim Jeter, who replaces George Denny because of illness). Turns out the fellow is a convicted child molester, a sexual predator who's been out of prison 13 years. He liked to dress up teenage boys as girls before molesting them. The evangelical Bosun clenches his fist when he spits out that Bundy tried to turn the boys "queer." He wants the Ferrebys to organize the neighbors to run Bundy out on a rail.
As difficult and cartoonish as the Bosuns might be with their hick drawls, their big leather belts and their bad politics, you'd think the revelation about Bundy would frighten the Ferrebys just a bit. After all, the Bosuns have a notebook full of documentation, and the Ferrebys have left their child Cassidy (Mary Moran) in the man's care many times.
Actors Theatre of Houston, 2506 South Boulevard
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But in this play, Catherine (Jill Giles), who seems to be Martin's surrogate voice, doesn't get scared; she gets furious at the Bosuns. Taking up for Bundy, Catherine argues that the biggest problem has more to do with invading the old man's privacy. The neighborhood, she figures, needs to forgive and forget. After all, Bundy did his time. He's been out of prison all these years with nary a problem, so it's time to leave the past behind and embrace the guy as the good neighbor he so obviously is. Puffed up with humanist self-righteousness, Giles's Catherine curls up her lip and scoffs at the uncouth Bosuns for their intolerance. She follows up her tirade with a jaw-droppingly bizarre point: She doesn't see why she needs to worry. Bundy likes boys, not girls. Her child is female. So what if the kid living on Bundy's other side is a teenage boy.
Robert (George Brock) has an altogether different reaction. Though it appears that he is supposed to come off as an unreasonable monster -- at one point he marches next door and beats Bundy to a bloody pulp -- he responds to the Bosuns' news with a healthy and believable dose of terror. Deciding that he doesn't want his daughter anywhere near Bundy, Robert eventually agrees that, yes, Bundy should be run out of town.
Meanwhile, the willful Cassidy visits Bundy despite her father's demands. At one point, she discovers an old trunk full of dress-up clothes, strips to her undies in front of the old man and proceeds to decorate herself with what we presume to be the same outfits Bundy used with his teenage victims.
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The fact that Bundy keeps a trunk of outfits, coupled with his professed "love" of children and the swing set in his backyard, ought to make any thinking person deeply suspicious of the "reformed" offender's motives. But this production repeatedly lands on Catherine's side, arguing for "forgiveness," as though that were all we need to make the world safe from sexual predators.
On the other hand, Bundy's story is compelling. He breaks down in front of Catherine and Robert one evening when they confront him with the accusations. He weeps when he counts all the moves he's had to make. No one wants a sex offender living next door.
The Bosuns add their own drama to the mix. Motivated by the rape and vicious murder of their daughter, they have taken it upon themselves to follow ex-sex offenders around the country and run them out of wherever they try to hide.
These disparate experiences are ripe with dramatic potential, full of paradox and social immediacy since the passing of Megan's Law in 1996. But so much preaching goes on that the whole thing comes off like a deeply confused soapbox speech. Fueling the fiery melodrama are some very loud performances. The yelling is accented by its physical equivalents: Brock's Robert throws a chair; Lott's Jimmy Ray pounds the table so hard that coffee flies from the cups; and Giles's Catherine sneers down her nose at her husband and the foolish Bosuns. Lacking nuance and emotional vitality, the script and the production reduce this complex subject to a series of long-winded rants that add little to the debate concerning sexual offenders and the rights of all concerned.