- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

The sad languor of Eartha Kitt’s rendition of the jazz standard “Lazy Afternoon” insinuates itself into the whole of “Starving,” S.M. Shephard-Massat’s trailing and busting-at-the-seams drama that — under the direction of Seret Scott — is receiving a vibrantly acted world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.

Listening to Miss Kitt’s song unleashed memories in the playwright of the apartment building in Atlanta where Miss Shephard-Massat’s family lived in the 1950s and beyond. The building was designed for upwardly mobile blacks — Pullman porters, schoolteachers, bakery workers and union men — who lived segregated from the white community but made careful and definite distinctions between themselves and black farmers, sharecroppers and day laborers.

The stories told by Miss Shephard-Massat’s mother about the apartment building form the core of “Starving,” which, with its emphasis on people starving for sex, attention, and release from grief, resembles “Desperate Housewives” in a more humid climate.

The denizens of Wisteria Lane are rank amateurs compared to the characters in “Starving,” who, with their soap-opera-ish Sturm und Drang, face not only rampant adultery, but drug addiction, rape, food poisoning, prison time, shady pasts and shaky morals.

Set designer Daniel Ettinger continues Woolly’s well-deserved infatuation with the company’s spacious new theater by designing a two-story apartment building that’s a voyeur’s delight. You don’t need a shot glass pressed against the walls to hear the goings-on in the four apartments.

Rosetta (Dawn Ursula) is an immaculately turned out teacher fixated on acting respectable, but some of her behind-the-scenes behavior is far from schoolmarmish. Archer (Craig Wallace), her downstairs neighbor, has a crush on her and is harboring secrets of his own. Freida (Lizan Mitchell, giving a powerhouse performance) is the building’s gabby busybody and gossip — yet beyond the bluster, Freida and her henpecked hubby, Felix (a radiantly genial Doug Brown) cope with bottomless sorrow. The fourth apartment is occupied by Bettie (Jessica Frances Dukes), a country girl from Florida, and her husband, a philandering Pullman porter named Meeker (J Paul Nicholas). Thrown in for a bit of 1950s hep-cat cool is Dolsiss (Bethany Butler), a glamorous dope fiend cruising the neighborhood.

Other than the notion that there must be something in the water (or Coca-Cola) in Atlanta that makes its residents so highly sexed, “Starving” is rather homey and predictable — a tame choice for the usually cutting-edge Woolly Mammoth. It’s a kitchen-sink drama crossed with the meandering, poetic speeches we’ve come to associate with the late playwright August Wilson. Although some of the numerous dense monologues take flight with rich descriptive language, Miss Shephard-Massat’s writing tends toward the overwritten and overexplained. You end up feeling weighted by the words, not lifted.

The domestic minidramas erupting in each apartment are enough to fill five plays, but Miss Shephard-Massat also tackles color hierarchy in the black community, racism, sexual politics and the seeds of the women’s liberation movement. It is too much for any play to carry, much less a modest slice-of-life work like “Starving.”

The play cries out for breathing room, as does the abundantly talented cast members, many of whom appeared swamped by the verbiage and often trip over one another’s lines.

Their chance to settle down into the swoops and rhythms of daily life arrives in the second act, when everyone gathers out front to watch the Easter fireworks. They joke and jibe with one another with a natural ease heretofore not seen, not fighting the dialogue, but letting it rest and flow.

Unfortunately, this golden moment soon passes as “Starving” once again sinks into groundless theatrics, culminating in an ending that just peters out instead of coming to some sort of satisfactory conclusion.

As a whole, “Starving” lacks structure and shape and, paradoxically, has too much bloat for a play about people in deprivation and aching need.


WHAT: “Starving,” by S.M. Shephard-Massat

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Dec. 18.

TICKETS: $30 to $48

PHONE: 202/393-3939


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