Billy Aronson's "The Art Room," which opened Saturday at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, sets the story of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in a mental ward. There's some basis for this, given Shakespeare's comparison of "the lunatic and the lover," but Sara Chazen's direction is so screeching that any possible moonstruck pleasures in the uneven script are drowned out.
Our Bottom is the gentle, retarded Thomas (Delaney Williams), a good-hearted, lonely soul who dreams of meeting "a fairy princess." The pairs of lovers confused about whom they want to be with are uptight, neurasthenic Jon (Oliver Wadsworth) and stuttering, schizophrenic Jackie (Jennifer Mendenhall), and workaholic businessman Art (Hugh Nees) and his wife, narcoleptic Madeline (Maia DeSanti).
Aronson has written for "Beavis and Butt-head," among others, and television writers usually know how to get to the point. But "The Art Room" is full of long, static monologues, self-consciously arty things that are about their own poetry rather than about the characters who have to speak them.
There's a lot of dashing about and diving in and out of doors and yelling. The cast has apparently been told to "act crazy," and that's what they do rather than act their characters. They're not behaving like mad people, they're behaving the way actors think mad people do, with some cute mannerisms added. The worst offender is Wadsworth, with his strident, twitchy performance as Jon. Even the talented Mendenhall only occasionally gets to slow down sufficiently to create a character. Williams has some genuinely pathetic moments, and Nees, an offhandedly buoyant actor, manages to float benignly above the mess.
The production is so noisy it's hard to hear what comic rhythms there might be in the script. I got the impression that some of the lines would have been pretty funny if they hadn't been goosed into a frenzy, and when things slow down toward the end, there are indications that the play might even be affecting. Maybe in some other production.
The Art Room, by Billy Aronson. Directed by Sara Chazen. Set, Robin Stapley; lighting, Jay A. Herzog; costumes, Lynn Steinmetz; sound, Dan Schrader. Also featuring Lynn Steinmetz. Woolly Mammoth through June 27. Call ProTix at 703-218-6500.
CAPTION: Oliver Wadsworth, left, and Delaney Williams in Woolly's mad "Art Room."