- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

You can’t blame a guy for trying. In “The Radiant Abyss,” a new play commissioned by Woolly Mammoth, playwright Angus MacLachlan taps into Americans’ mistrust of foreigners; our quest for spirituality; our obsessions with sex, racism and morality; and other hot-button topics.

The play introduces these concepts and more in two hours directed swiftly by Lou Jacob. If some of the concepts had taken full flight, it would have been even more incisive. Instead, “Radiant” is a sputtering mass of ideas, some of which are intriguingly presented but never developed. So we’re left with a work chockablock with possibilities.

“The Radiant Abyss” takes place in a strip-mall property-management office in North Carolina. Owner Erin Skidmore (Janis Dardaris) is “in conference” with her young assistant, Steve Enloe (Jeremy Beazlie); actually, they are more like “in flagrante delicto.”

While having sex at her desk, Erin briskly outlines the true reason she has invited Steve into her office.

She is troubled by the charismatic church next door and has heard rumors that the flock is up to all sorts of strangeness. She wants to send a message to the congregants that red-blooded citizens of the U.S. of A. like Erin just don’t tolerate weirdos or differences of any kind, religious or otherwise. She needs Steve to deliver this message — and perhaps destroy a little property in the process.

Steve, a splendid opportunist who has two women on the string besides Erin, is only too happy to help.

Despite the fawnlike quality of his youth, Steve is dangerous in that he is both dumb and a risk-taker. He enlists the aid of his girlfriend Ina (Dana Acheson), a seemingly sweet and docile creature who works at Kinko’s but turns out to be scarily intense.

Impressionable Ina falls under the sway of Erin, who may be a redneck beneath her fancy clothes (she constantly rages about her Mexican tenants) but is undeniably compelling. While Steve drifts from one girl and dead-end job to another, the tough Erin is resolute in her quest to teach this church a lesson. Of course, you wonder where she gets off being so high and mighty when she is sleeping with a boy and also fencing possessions seized from her properties.

While Erin comes off like a Klan member in a miniskirt and high heels, Ina is more of a mystery. Is her docility just an act? What darkness roils beneath her Kinko’s uniform? You get a glimpse of Ina’s fascinating instability after she returns from her night of infiltrating the church. A dedicated nonbeliever, Ina finds herself engulfed by the liturgy, the holding of hands and the sheer power of the believers.

“It was like jumping into something bottomless and exciting,” she says in one of the more riveting passages in “The Radiant Abyss.”

The play seems to be veering into an exploration of spirituality and the pull of charismatic religions — that sense of belonging that is both protective and mollifying. But “The Radiant Abyss” merely presents this concept and then lets it drift away.

One suspects “The Radiant Abyss” reads better on the page than it plays in performance, where chaos rules. The actors seem to be uncertain about playing their characters, so they tend to go for stereotypical behavior most every time: Erin the Southern bigot, Steve the empty-headed stud and Ina the crazy chickadee. You can’t entirely fault the actors because the play appears to be a one-note diatribe on religious and cultural intolerance.

It is commendable that Woolly Mammoth not only takes chances on new playwrights, but also actually produces new work rather than workshopping it to death. In the case of “The Radiant Abyss,” a bit more development might have brought some of the possibilities into reality.

**

WHAT: Woolly Mammoth’s “The Radiant Abyss”

WHERE: AFI Theatre at the Kennedy Center

WHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through July 18.

TICKETS: $24 to $39

PHONE: 202/467-4600

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