Ruth McGowan, an attractive buppie personnel specialist, has been assigned the task of finding new jobs for assembly line workers laid off by the factory she works for. Pete Drabish is one of them, a paunchy middle-aged man who has been content to stick to the "Number 2 Extruder," eschewing promotions. He doesn't want the job McGowan is trying to find for him.
In "Hands-On Experience," a new play by Andrew MacBeth that opened recently at the City Stage Theatre Company in Alexandria, the fortunes of these two people go up and down, and a friendship develops. And that's about all that happens.
City Stage is devoted to producing new plays and, according to its literature, was looking specifically for a play with a multiracial cast. Out of 200 submitted scripts, the company chose this one. It is hard to see why. "Hands-On Experience" is not unpleasant -- it has moments of amusement and bemusement -- but it has all the dramatic tension of a Number 2 Extruder, whatever that is.
Dee Freeman and Paul Hjelmervik handle their roles with competence; the stiffness both exhibit is probably due more to the script than to their performances. MacBeth (is that his real name, by the way?) writes TV talk, not the conversations or exchanges of real people. It may seem natural because that is what we have gotten used to hearing, but the characters' inability to engage either themselves or the audience emotionally attests to the basic superficiality of the dialogue.
Curiously, although McGowan is black and Drabish is white, there is nothing in the piece that plays off this obviously intentional difference. If the point is that race doesn't matter, that it is really other, cultural things that divide us, wouldn't it make sense to say that somehow? Surely the fact that McGowan is a young professional black woman telling older white males what to do must mean something to her -- but what?
That is merely one of many potentially dramatic ideas that MacBeth has ignored. I'm afraid that inoffensiveness is not the stuff of great theater.
Hands-On Experience, by Andrew MacBeth, produced by City Stage Theatre Company. Directed by Debra Andrew; set by John Leonard Thompson, lighting by Christopher Lewton, costumes by Carol Ramsdell. With Dee Freeman and Paul Hjelmervik. At the American Showcase Theatre in Alexandria through Aug. 12.