- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — The 2006 Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) — continuing through July 30 on the campus of Shepherd University — rounded out its rotating schedule of four plays this past weekend with Richard Dresser’s world-premiere drama “Augusta” and Noah Haidle’s “Mr. Marmalade.”

Directed by Lucie Tiberghien, “Augusta,” the first play in Mr. Dresser’s proposed trilogy of dramas about “happiness” in the American psyche, deals with the tribulations of America’s have-not class. The title references the location of a pivotal corporate convention that involves two of the drama’s three characters. A sort of female “buddy play,” “Augusta” pits two women working for a national housecleaning company — middle-aged Molly (brilliantly performed by Carolyn Swift) and youthful newcomer Claire (nicely etched by Kaci Gober) — against their slimy new manager, Jimmy (an oleaginous Andy Prosky).

Adept at turning the women against each other through clever inquisitions, Jimmy seeks to impose his will, and get in Claire’s knickers, by dividing and conquering. His task, however, is complicated by some unexpected female solidarity.

Mr. Dresser has glommed onto an interesting idea here, but his treatment of it is decidedly less than adequate. Perhaps a clue is his belief, stated in an interview in the printed program, that America’s social classes “are as definite as the British, but I don’t think we are as honest about it.” He further observes that “it’s a myth” that “we’re a very socially mobile society, and if we work hard, we can move up.”

Essentially, Mr. Dresser is adopting the predictably deterministic, Marxist view of American society. His flawed but lovable working-class characters are etched sympathetically and in realistic detail, while their evil capitalist oppressor — himself just a cog in a larger machine — is no more than a two-dimensional Snidely Whiplash sleazebag.

Jimmy blusters, threatens and cajoles. A condescending sexist, he violates every human-resources regulation in the book and crows about it, culminating in his cheap and phony invitation to Claire to join him at the convention, not as a participant, but as a live-in paramour.

Jimmy, of course, is intended as a satirical object. However, when a play pits two realistic characters against a human dartboard, the battle becomes one-sided, and the story no longer rings true. Mr. Dresser appears to have no comprehension of management or business leadership. Thus, his portrayal of Jimmy, while at times hilarious, is so lacking in realism and sympathy that it undercuts the believability of the play. The best dramatic villains always have a human heart. Ideological rigidity denies this trait.

A far better social satire is Noah Haidle’s “Mr. Marmalade,” directed by Ed Herendeen. Though not entirely without flaw — including an occasional over-reliance on vile language — it’s clearly the best of this season’s CATF plays. Dark, edgy and mature, it’s black comedy at its best, confronting a topic that’s oddly taboo in today’s society: the fact that, with workaholic or divorced parents, an astounding number of today’s children are forced to raise themselves, with sometimes harrowing consequences.

“Mr. Marmalade” starts out as just another story about a little kid with a stupid imaginary friend. In this case, it’s 4-year-old Lucy (Anne Marie Nest in a tour-de-force performance) who conjures up the imaginary pal who gives the play its title. But Mr. M (Joseph Adams in a Mephistophelean turn) is not your garden-variety phantom pal, a smiling Barney who counsels you in your lonely world.

He’s a driven executive who physically abuses his aide Bradley (Scott Whitehurst with a swell Caribbean accent) and, eventually, little Lucy herself. Bit players in this kiddy psychodrama include Lucy’s equally put-upon little pal Larry (Matt Unger) and her sexually wanton mother, enthusiastically played by Sara Kathryn Bakker.

Mr. Haidle skates a fine line between fantasy and reality, piling on hilarity even while undercutting it with Grand Guignol horror. Lucy’s fantasy life, clearly rooted in her mother’s one-night stands and seasoned by soap operas and uncensored late-night TV, is too close to present reality for comfort. She is but one of many children becoming hardened before their time — too cynical for love, too tough for closeness.

“Mr. Marmalade” is the frame-tale for a new Lost Generation of children cruelly deprived of childhood. Even while laughing at each outrageous scenario, you’re compelled to cringe at the unpleasant truths that lie beneath. The nastiness of today’s social reality —the neglect of new generations by preoccupied, selfish parents (although driven in part by the demands of the workplace) — doesn’t need class struggles to pound home its message. Mr. Haidle just tells the story. It’s up to us to do the rest.

WHAT: “Augusta,” by Richard Dresser .1/2 and “Mr. Marmalade” by Noah Haidle

*** 1/2

WHERE: The Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) at the Frank Center and the Studio Theater Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.

WHEN: Showtimes vary, as the plays will be performed in repertory. The festival continues through July 30.

TICKETS: $26 to 33 per play. Packages also are available.

INFORMATION: Ticket purchases, accommodations and directions to Shepherdstown and the theaters may be obtained by calling 800/999-CATF (2283) or through the Web site www.catf.org

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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