2005_05_arts_unsuspecting.JPGProbably the first thing Gothamist noticed about Celia Imrie, who plays the title role in Stewart Permutt’s Unsuspecting Susan, is how brilliantly her eyes sparkle – over the course of the show, they reflect the crystal carafes of liquor set prominently on her dining table, then the bright lights of a stage, and finally the welling up of bitter, confused tears. This basically one-woman play is part of the Brits off Broadway series, which is heading into its final stretch; Imrie, who has been in quite a lot of films and TV, played Susan in London two years back, and she’s terrific. Susan is a middle-aged woman living alone in Hampshire; she’s divorced and her son is grown and out of the house. For the first stretch of the play, she seems to be no more than a rather hyperactive socialite, very gossipy and sharp-tongued. Imrie talks about her friends and neighbors so that it feels like she’s taking you into her confidence.

2005_05_arts_britsoffbway.JPGIt’s not long before the cracks begin to show, though. She smirks a bit as she mentions the spiky-haired social worker who recently moved in next door, but then mentions how the woman gets a little alarmed when she hears about Susan’s son. More clues are dropped one by one: Simon (the son) is clinically depressed (or, as Susan says, “paranoid schizo, but jolly nice”), he did some really troubling things as a child, he hardly calls now and is in and out of different flats…but Susan wants nothing more than to believe that he’s going to be alright, that he’s getting things under control (a more apt title for the play might be “Susan in Denial,” but of course that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it). Besides, Susan is busy with her own affairs – taking care of her dogs, working as a landscape gardener, acting in her church group’s play about a lesbian.

The show follows her through several different scenes over the course of a few months, with Susan popping in and out to dish to the audience about what’s going on in her life in a lively manner. Then…the thing she doesn’t suspect, or has kept herself from suspecting, rears its ugly head, the central event that takes the play into new, distant territory. So as not to be a spoiler, Gothamist will just say that this event is an atrocity committed by Simon, and its consequences plunge Susan and the play into the darkness of the post-9/11, war on terror atmosphere, where more British playwrights than American ones seem to be setting their sights these days, though we’ll see what August at the Fringe Festival brings. Anyway, Susan tries to maintain the good British stiff upper lip, with the help of some good old-fashioned drinking and a couple sympathetic people in the village, but she’s clearly a volatile element, and Imrie reveals this well with her frequent subtle but fast shifts in emotional gears.

The play is certainly dark, no getting around that, but the first half, which is generally lighthearted and amusing, buoys the audience (and Susan) along to the turning point, and the questions and problems that arise in response to what Simon does are thought-provoking and disquieting enough to make the slower second half work almost as well, even if there aren’t the kind of laughs prompted by Susan’s earlier quips. For that willingness to unsettle, and above all for Imrie’s bravura performance, Unsuspecting Susan is definitely a show to catch.

Details: At 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., through July 3; Tues.-Sat. 8:15pm, Sat. also 2:15pm; Sun. 3:15 and 7:15pm. Tickets here.