Several of our local theater groups like to consider themselves "alternative" companies, but with "The Kramer," the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company comes closer than any of them to fulfilling the definition.
Its previous two shows have been spotty. "The Kramer," however, gives a clear indication of the company's character, its concerns and a spare esthetic, not unlike that of the Japanese print. This may not be a perfect production, but it is easily the most interesting evening I've spent all fall off-off Kennedy Center.
Written by Mark Medoff in 1972, "The Kramer" is a study of menace, manipulation and violence just under the skin. It is set in Washington, and chronicles, often in surrealistic terms, the lightning rise of a cool Machiavelli named Bart Kramer through the ranks of the Washington Institute of Secretarial Sciences. Seemingly a perfect embodiment of the pin-striped, Harvard-honed executive, Kramer is a master power player, and the script depicts his calculated ploys to reshape the lives and personalities of his co-workers.
Chief among them is Art Malin, an amiable shambler married to a cheerful, vulgar waitress. As the play proceeds, Malin turns over more and more of his identity and his humanity to Kramer, a kind of psychic surrender that has him bellowing helplessly at one point, "I need some more material, Kramer, I'm running out of my life." By the end, Malin is an empty shell, but he is not the only one. The secondary characters -- a young nurse with a flagging social conscience; her husband, an armless victim of the Hiroshima bombing; and a good-time switchboard operator -- are all left equally spent. Medoff implies that Kramer's ways (his ultimate goal is a berth at the State Department) are those of Washington or any city drunk on power. But they may also be those of God in His Perfect Malevolence.
By staging the individual scenes on multiple levels that elevate some actors disproportionately over others, director Howard Shalwitz has converted a fragmented script into an arresting visual metaphor for the evening. Three actors play the manipulative Kramer, sometimes speaking and moving in unison, sometimes dividing up the lines and fanning out over the stage, sometimes operating alone. The approach multiplies Kramer's menace, giving him a kind of dramatic omniscience. Not all the actors are right for their roles -- Beverly Brigham Bowman is touching as the bubble-headed waitress, but probably about 10 years too old for the part -- but all of them are attuned to the prevailing style, lean and succinct. Roger M. Brady, as the chief Kramer, is chillingly in control of himself and others, and David Rose traces the disintegration of Malin with tight-fisted economy.
This is a provocative marriage of an off-beat play and a troupe that has set out to forge a distinctive ensemble style. Isn't that what we are looking for in our "alternative" theaters?
THE KRAMER. By Mark Medoff. Director, Howard Shalwitz; set, Roger M. Brady; lighting, Chas Hausheer; with Roger M. Brady, Michael J. Johnson, Buzz Roddy, David Rose, Stephen Wallace Haines, Beverly Brigham Bowman, Georga Lee Duncan, Susan McDonald, Ade Spikol. At the Church of the Epiphany, 1317 G St. NW, through Nov. 21.