- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Is there anything Jennifer Mendenhall cannot do? She was radiant and grounded as a born-again Christian in Craig Wright’s play “Grace,” which premiered at Woolly Mammoth last fall. In “Electra” at MetroStage this summer, she was a snarling, seething harpy of a woman abandoned by both the gods and her family.

Miss Mendenhall can play sexually voracious — who can forget her kinky love scenes with Howard Shalwitz in the comedy “Lenny and Lou”? — and emotionally strident, as seen in her performance as a former librarian nearly driven mad by the Taliban’s restrictions on women in Tony Kushner’s “Homebody/Kabul.”

She gets to play moments of disquiet, anxiety and sexual exhilaration as Alison, the reluctant heroine of Canadian playwright Daniel MacIvor’s drama “You Are Here.”

The Theater Alliance’s production, under the languid direction of Gregg Henry, has a good deal going for it beyond Miss Mendenhall’s piercing portrayal of a woman looking back and realizing how little control she had in shaping her life and circumstances. By the time she takes the reins, it’s already too late.

Mr. Henry has assembled a superb cast, including Kathleen Coons as the chirpily self-involved starlet Diane; Alexander Strain as the jumpy gigolo Justin; and Brian Hemmingsen as a movie director whose sense of command and authority provides much-needed moments of banked wit.

“You Are Here” is structured like a rewinding movie, with Alison nearly tiptoeing into our view, curling up in a chair — as if unwilling to take up too much space — and clutching a wine bottle filled with sand from the Dead Sea. Alison uncoils and expands as the play progresses, her tight fragility leaving her as moments and people from her past pop up.

Boy, do they crop up, a perpetual loop of half-formed people who never quite seem to have it together and evoke every Hollywood cliche.

Ostensibly an intelligent writer and filmmaker, Alison in her mind never graduates from college, where she still harbors such untoward feelings for a female rival (Connie Hoy) for her favorite professor’s affections that you just want to slap her clear into next week.

Her dearest friend, Richard (Michael Russotto), is an amiable slacker still smoking dope and taking drugs way past college age. Her husband, Jerry (Tim Carlin), is a psychologist seemingly dedicated to helping people, but when he turns to screenwriting, he becomes almost a stale joke of someone embracing life in the vapid lane. Jerry’s co-pilot is Diane, a superstar in the Julia Roberts mold who basks in the celebrity spotlight while embracing New Age fads and fancies.

The only two characters who seem solid and self-aware are Tomas Roman, the director resigned to the parasitic realities of the movie biz, and the shockingly alive Justin — but then again, he’s a drug dealer and a male prostitute.

As for Alison, well, she’s the most rootless of them all, one of those people who just falls into marriage because some guy comes along and she doesn’t want to be alone; who drifts into a job writing celebrity profiles for a magazine; who wanders into an affair with Tomas because she seems incapable of or uninterested in putting up any resistance; who slips into alcohol and drugs simply because they are within arm’s reach. Miss Mendenhall exudes a wicked abandon — at one point snorting cocaine off Justin’s naked thigh — in these scenes, which quickly devolve into a rerun of VH-1’s “Behind the Music” series.

Miss Mendenhall’s shaded performance aside, what the heck kind of character is that? Why are we supposed to laud or care about someone who is so obstinately passive that she allows other people to form her life and then has the gall to mewl that she’s unhappy? Of course she’s unfulfilled; there’s nothing to her.

A similar sort of creeping torpor invades many of Mr. MacIvor’s characters, who seem incapable of making even the smallest of decisions and are required to utter such lines as, “When we say ‘I love you,’ we build cages” with a straight face. One can only hope Mr. MacIvor meant for some of the dialogue’s clunkers to be taken with a dollop of irony.

As a skewering of the movie industry’s vacuous temptations and as an examination of one woman’s unfinished life, “You Are Here” leads us nowhere.

**1/2

WHAT: “You Are Here” by Daniel MacIvor

WHERE: Theater Alliance, 1365 H St. NE

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Through Nov. 13.

TICKETS: $25

PHONE: 800/494-8497

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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