RECKLESS. By Craig Lucas. Directed by Norman Rene. Circle Repertory Company.

Rachel Fitzsimons loves Christmas: Bing Crosby on the radio, giving gifts, the reminders of childhood, the way snow sucks up sound, even the way television stores up all the happy news for Christmas Eve. She's so euphoric, babbling under the covers as Santa's making his rounds, that she's prepared to forgive her remote husband, Tom, for not buying the Christmas present she wants most, a puppy. But he has a more expensive surprise for her, which he remorsefully confesses in the nick of time: he's taken out a contract on her life.

Next thing you know, Rachel has accepted a ride and is speeding down the freeway, leaving behind her kids, her clothes, her friends, her name, even her wedding ring, which she throws out the window. "I always wanted to do something reckless, you know? Run away in the middle of the night in your slip and your slippers with some strange man who would ruin your reputation and disappoint your parents terribly and disappoint your friends and just make you really happy. Well," she burbles, "I think we get these ideas from rock 'n' roll songs."

The plot to Craig Lucas's Reckless is so unlikely that it's downright life-like. Lloyd, the man who picks Rachel up, takes her home to meet his paraplegic deaf-mute girlfriend, Pooty. With the flexibility that only innocents possess, Rachel moves in with them and gets a job through Lloyd at a non-profit foreign-relief agency. Another cruel Christmas prank sends Rachel fleeing again; this time she winds up mute in a shelter for the homeless. After nearly being shot on a TV talk show, she regains her speech, becomes a therapist, and moves to Alaska, where one of her clients is a troubled boy named Tom Jr. who thinks she resembles his mother.

The purposely loony, coincidence-laden plot of Reckless and its bright comic surface are a mask, however, for the essentially philosophical questions at the heart of the play -- questions about time and identity, how things change and how they stay the same, the randomness of things and yet their interconnectedness. "Things happen for a reason," Rachel keeps saying in her sensible-mom way, until she is forced to ask, "Or do they?" One of the things that makes the play so satisfying and psychologically truthful is -- paradoxically -- its send-up of conventional psychology.

Psychoanalysis' gift to 20th-century theater was the kind of drama that sets out a conflict or character flaw and then proceeds to track down the motivation -- often some childhood trauma -- that explains the behavior in question. A textbook example that comes to mind is Lanford Wilson's Talley's Folly, in which the desire of two people to get together is blocked by a secret obstacle: Sally Talley can't have babies. When she finally confesses this shameful fact, minutes before the final curtain, Matt Friedman says, surprise, I don't want kids, and they're free to marry.

This kind of drama is understandably popular, since it calls for a classic whodunit structure, suspenseful in the telling, satisfying in the resolution. That it betrays a rather simple-minded understanding of human psychology has not escaped the notice of playwrights like Lucas.

In Reckless, the surreal chain of events sends Rachel to a succession of shrinks who keep trying to saddle her with what are clearly their own fixations -- parental loss, psychosomatic illness, birth trauma, lack of self-esteem. It's a hilarious and savage comment on the kind of trendy therapy deemed successful when the patient embraces some pathological identity ("I am an anorexic," "I am a child of an alcoholic") at the expense of all other experience. Reckless dramatizes instead the kind of psychological quest that results not in laying blame but in understanding that (not why) things go awry despite the most careful plans and, despite disaster after disaster, things can turn out okay. Truly learning from experience, Lucas suggests, almost requires transcending narrow self-definitions. Not without pain, not without puzzlement, Rachel becomes someone she never set out to be.

The chirpy, accommodating, naive but not stupid heroine of Reckless -- both in Lucas's writing and in Robin Bartlett's virtuosically nuanced performance -- is reminiscent of various Christopher Durang characters, especially the central character of The Marriage of Bette and Boo (unforgettably played at the Public Theater by Joan Allen). The difference is that Durang's characters generally achieve survival through anger, Lucas's through against-the-odds optimism. It's a tribute to his sweet temperament and wild imagination that Reckless sustains its comic buoyancy while dealing almost relentlessly with dark subjects -- pain, loss, alienation, nameless middle-of-the-night fears, and the chaos of the universe.

It's a familiar strategy for Lucas; his plays Blue Window and Three Postcards were both ostensibly plotless comedies about groups of yuppie-ish friends gathering for a meal and chatting in that elliptical slang that passes for contemporary American speech. Yet they both managed to capture all kinds of slippery, disturbing social truths about intimacy, secrecy, and how little of our real selves we share with our friends. Reckless is an earlier play, first performed for a brief run in 1983; now revised and revived by Circle Rep in a brilliant production directed by Norman Rene, it provides an occasion to acknowledge that Craig Lucas has joined the ranks of American theater's finest comic writers alongside Durang, John Guare, and Wallace Shawn.

Theatrically ingenious, intricately literary plays that eschew pat conclusions often confuse and put off audiences (it's a perennial problem for good playwrights such as Len Jenkin, Eric Overmyer, and Harry Kondoleon). Lucas's advantage in that regard is that, as a former performer himself, he trusts what actors can do, so he lets them embody what the play's about rather than making bald announcements about it. he is abetted in this by his longtime collaborator Norman Rene, who is a genius at eliciting concrete, actable expressions of fine emotional abstractions.

Their production of Blue Window (captured for posterity on film for American Playhouse) was one of the most amazing achievements in ensemble acting I've ever seen; working with the Circle Rep company, Rene achieves nearly as impressive results. Watch, for example, the way John Dossett and the remarkable Welker White converse in sign language as Lloyd and Pooty -- their open-faced all-Americanness only emphasizes the mystery of their relationship.

Perhaps Rene's finest coup is the suggestion that the entire play is a dream, an overly contented suburban mother's fantasy of living a life unlike her own, Alice in Wonderland style. The clues are all there, from Loy Arcenas's dreamscape set to Bartlett's pensive final moment (as der Bingle croons, "I'll be home for Christmas/If only in my dreams"). Rather than pinning down one solution, though, it's a pleasure to let the possibilities multiply in your mind. That's the best kind of play.

7 Days, October 12, 1988