"I come from strivers," sniffs well-off middle-class matron Louise (Beverly Cosham). "A long line of professional people. I was not privy to . . . folklore." The "folklore" she's condescending to in Source Theatre Company's warmhearted production of "Inns & Outs" is a gift of New Year's black-eyed peas offered by a hotel maid, Vita (Jewell Robinson). Obviously, Louise has to get back in touch with her roots.
But that's about the only obvious thing about "New Year's Eve" or any of the four other one-acts with holiday names that make up "Inns & Outs." As different characters come and go in the same hotel room at a ritzy New England resort, playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings takes on tough issues--failing marriages, racial tension, class snobbery--with humor, ruthless sanity and a gift for the unexpected.
Some of the plays are incomplete; they come to a stop rather than resolving to an end. But collectively the five one-acts shore up one another's weaknesses and combine into a full dramatic experience. In "Memorial Day," Robbie (Lynn Chavis) and Larry (Scott Fortune) try to figure out whether they have a future even though she is a radical and he is "a man who thinks Clarence [Thomas] is cool and Shelby Steele has soul." In "Independence Day," grandmother wannabe Paula (Robinson at her most comically frustrated) tries to deal with her appallingly trendy daughter and son-in-law (Chavis and David Lamont Wilson): "I just shut my eyes and say, 'Okay, they're like two little weird white children.' "
"Labor Day" details the growing tension between a failed white businessman, Gene (Gary Telles), and his black friend of 16 years, Roy (Doug Brown), who is a roaring success. In "Christmas," a lonely recent widower (Fortune) encounters a young Asian American flake who can see ghosts. And in the aforementioned "New Year's Eve," Louise reconciles not only with her roots but with her whole family.
There's nothing glib about Jennings's optimism, it's earned--and she doesn't get to her happy endings by avoiding the rawness of the issues she's dealing with. "Memorial Day's" Larry tells Robbie, "I am sick to death of black people," and she retaliates by calling him "a black racist . . . a Nazi!" In "Labor Day," when Roy is faced with Gene's unease and envy, he immediately decides Gene has regarded him as inferior all along; it takes him a while to absorb the idea that his friend might simply be humiliated and jealous in that old masculine-competitive way.
The last of the playlets, "New Year's Eve," is also the least interesting, and its inclusion drags out what could be a crisply enjoyable evening. On the other hand, Cosham waltzes the script around the stage so charmingly that you can't be sorry it was included.
You can be sorry, though, that "Christmas" isn't the crowning end of the evening. This quirkiest, funniest and most sentimentally daring of the little plays harks back to the 19th-century convention of ghost stories as Christmastime entertainment, and like the granddaddy of the genre, "A Christmas Carol," delivers a shivery thrill of pure, aching sweetness.
No small thanks are due to its cast, the plain-mannered and affecting Fortune and the beguilingly nutbar (and wonderfully named) Strawberry Catubo as the Gen-X psychic. Indeed, under Lisa Rose Middleton's direction, the whole production is acted with such simplicity and warmth that the characters and their stories become irresistible. Jennings is that unusual writer who can be uplifting without succumbing to corniness, and "Inns & Outs" is that unusual Christmastime show, a sugarplum that won't pucker your mouth with false sentiment.
Inns & Outs, by Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Directed by Lisa Rose Middleton. Set by Jordana Adelman; lights, Dan Covey; sound, David Lamont Wilson; costumes, Susan Chiang; props, Elizabeth Baldwin. At the Source Theatre through Jan. 2. Call 202-462-1073.