Scena Theatre, a new company devoted to performing European plays that have not been seen in Washington, inaugurates its three-play winter repertory with "Help Wanted," a series of 10 brief scenes by West German playwright Franz Xaver Kroetz.
In these biting, vivid scenes for two characters, Kroetz is primarily concerned with unemployment and its effects on society and the psyche. He believes in the importance of work in establishing and anchoring identity, and his characters become weightless nonpersons once they're cut adrift. His disaffected people rail bitterly -- and impotently -- at a government that places a low priority on human worth. Kroetz makes his points convincingly, with an engaging blend of poignancy and caustic humor. But with the majority of the 10 skits hammering away at the same theme, "Help Wanted" makes for an exasperatingly monochromatic evening.
Director and company founder Robert McNamara has assembled a strong group of actors and designers. But McNamara's direction succeeds in only about half of the evening's scenes. Kroetz clearly does not intend all his skits to be presented realistically, but MacNamara's direction is overstylized in the extreme, exaggerating and underlining words until their meaning is all but obliterated. The English translation by Gitta Honegger sounds comfortable enough, but can't compensate for Kroetz's tendency toward didactic barrage.
Jane Beard's understatement is particularly impressive in the face of all the sound and fury. In "Steps," Beard is a brisk wife who leaves her unemployed husband ranting infantilely at home -- Matt Walker's gratingly hysterical performance is like all Three Stooges rolled into one.
Beard's restraint is also striking in "Negative Balance," a monologue about a woman who muses about her use of the Pill and alcohol after a lump is discovered in her breast. Here Kroetz is obliquely critical of a society that creates needs fulfillable only by potentially life-threatening consumer goods.
Kent Liggett and T. Kay Hutchinson are also fine in "Christmas Death," a sort of cruel twist on the O. Henry story "The Gift of the Magi," as an unemployed husband presents his wife with a diamond bracelet stolen from a department store.
In "Poor Poet," Chris Henley is comically convincing in a telephone monologue as a free-lance writer who eloquently refuses to sign an antigovernment petition for fear it would jeopardize his own employability.
The attention devoted to production values is an encouraging sign in a new company.
John M. Connole's set, lighted by Christopher Townsend, is ringed by white curtains, with three abstract panels that shift swiftly to suggest the play's various locales. Sound designer David Crandall's subdued mix of ambient noises and music provides an ironic backdrop for the noisy angst of Kroetz's characters.
Scena will present Samuel Beckett's "Endgame" and Polish playwright Ignacy Witkiewicz's "Tropical Madness" in repertory with "Help Wanted."
Help Wanted, by Franz Xaver Kroetz. Directed by Robert McNamara; settings, John M. Connole; lighting, Christopher Townsend; sound, David Crandall; costumes, Lynnie Raybuck. With Daniel C. Awkward, Jane Beard, Leslie Byrne, Chris Henley, T. Kay Hutchinson, Kent Liggett, Tom Quinn, Susan Ross, Matt Walker. Performed by Scena Theatre at Source Theatre Mainstage through Jan. 16.