'24, 7, 365' review: Perpetual state of angst can be hard to handle

Deidra LaWan Starnes and Michael Kramer and another couple take an introspective camping trip in the play "24,7,365," showing at three Washington-area venues.
Deidra LaWan Starnes and Michael Kramer and another couple take an introspective camping trip in the play "24,7,365," showing at three Washington-area venues.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2011; 11:13 PM

In Jennifer L. Nelson's comedy of fresh-air meltdowns, "24, 7, 365," Deidra LaWan Starnes plays a social worker named Johnnie who wants it all, even though she already seems to have it all: secure financial life; handsome, devoted husband; job that satisfies her need to make an impact.

"Haven't you thought about what it would be like to be satisfied all the time?" she asks the audience moodily at the outset of this fairly contrived work, staged with ready-for-cable sincerity by Juanita Rockwell at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, on H Street NE. The title of the piece, produced by George Mason University's Theater of the First Amendment, refers to Johnnie's wish for bliss at all hours of the day, every day. And while the question might be the grist for an engaging elevator ride, it isn't sufficient narrative glue for two hours of wistful musing and cranky complaint.

We learn over the course of an eventful camping trip, arranged by Johnnie's geologist husband, Jan (Michael Kramer), that there has been some sadness in their childless marriage and some professional bumps in her work with battered women. But Johnnie's perpetual angst makes her extremely hard to like, and so we're never recruited in her cause of finding eternal sunshine. You feel a lot more for poor Jan, who's driven up a tree - literally - by Johnnie's shapeless ennui. (One of the more sophisticated facets of the play is that Jan and Johnnie's interracial relationship is made to seem immaterial to her unhappiness.)

Nelson fills the proceedings, playing out on Daniel Ettinger's rendering of a woodsy West Virginia campsite, with the sorts of characters with whom Johnnie reflexively spars. Her overbearingly entitled yuppie brother, Beau (Craig Wallace), clumsily pitches a tent near Johnnie's with girlfriend-of-the-moment Shavondra (Fatima Quander), a clotheshorse who would flee nature faster than you can say "American Express."

Far more improbable are the plot mechanics that bring another visitor to the campground: Kwame (Baye Harrell), the mate of Johnnie's client and the accused abuser. This comes about after the agitated Johnnie abandons the campsite in the middle of the night, only to find Kwame at the kitchen table of her Washington home. How he wound up there and why after a strange gab session he would drive Johnnie back to the woods are some of the play's odder elements, the type of storytelling shortcuts that weaken one's faith in the writing.

Kramer infuses the Danish Jan with Continental charm, and Quander lets you believe that firecracker Shavondra would say any outrageous thing that comes into her head. Starnes has the tougher job, trying to make Johnnie our touchstone, and the actress's stridency leaves the sensation that we're all but being forced into a headlock to accept this character's point of view. If the play is convincing about anything, it's that 24/7 with Johnnie would be a real test of endurance.

24, 7, 365 by Jennifer L. Nelson. Directed by Juanita Rockwell. Costumes, LeVonne Lindsey; lighting, Dan Covey; sound, Chas Marsh. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through Feb. 27 at Atlas Performing Arts Center; March 3-5 at Hylton Performing Arts Center and March 10-13 at George Mason University Center for the Arts. Visit www.atlasarts.org, www.hyltoncenter.org and www.cfa.gmu.edu.

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