We should all know better than to fall for a lost soul like Ina, the dizzy hourly employee of Angus MacLachlan's new comedy of minimum-wage manners, "The Radiant Abyss." As played by the fetchingly confused Dana Acheson, Ina is an offspring of unhinged America, that land of glazed doughnuts, greasy fries and half-baked formulations of right and wrong.
This being a play about the oddball inclinations that pass for normal in our peculiar national character, Ina's gaps in judgment and knowledge come across not as irksome but endearing. And Acheson seems so at ease in Ina's starched uniforms from Eckerd and Kinko's, so finely tuned to Ina's macabre idea of what's routine, that she manages to remain lovable even as the play plumbs ever more fully the depths of her derangement.
Ina is the most seductive element of "The Radiant Abyss," a work that is receiving a world premiere by Woolly Mammoth at the Kennedy Center Film Theater. All three actors in the piece, in fact, make memorable losers, and director Lou Jacob ensures that the farcically indecent acts committed in and around the cinder-block office in which the play takes place retain a ripe sense of lunacy.
The play's offbeat charm notwithstanding -- the two hours pass in a pleasurable haze -- MacLachlan has yet to iron out some kinks in his tale, set in the marginal universe of a property management concern in a strip mall in Winston-Salem, N.C. The most egregious shortcoming is not apparent until just before the final blackout, when the author inserts a moment of ludicrous, perfunctory violence. MacLachlan has a lovely ear for a revealing blandness of speech, as in Ina's musing, "Maybe I'll join the Peace Corps. Do they still have that?" But he hasn't solved the problem of a rudderless narrative: You can feel MacLachlan's struggle to build a story of a liveliness commensurate with his characters. Too often, at this stage, the strain shows.
"The Radiant Abyss," the first work commissioned by Woolly ever to reach the Woolly stage, owes a debt to a slew of playwrights dedicated to tales of the American outer limits, writers like Sam Shepard ("True West") and Tracy Letts ("Killer Joe"), who put under the microscope the flakiest chromosomes in the national genome. MacLachlan, whose earlier druggie drama "The Dead Eye Boy" was a critical success, has a natural talent for the genre. He's another poet of junk food and trashy impulses -- you could call it the theater of the double-wide.
MacLachlan's characters are doomed to little lives.
They're afflicted with all of the restlessness and sense of entitlement that seem a function of growing up in this country, yet they lack the grounding common sense that would steer them to any kind of meaningful success. Erin Skidmore (Janis Dardaris) is proprietor of Skidmore Property Management, a shabby agency whose principal activity is to ignore the complaints of the tenants in the rental units it oversees. Erin is a middle-aged woman of strong biases and, to put it mildly, easy morals.
Behind the desk of her drab office, imagined by James Kronzer with a thorough grasp of the utilitarian dullness of back-shop America, she engages in regular sessions of afternoon coitus with Steve Enloe (Jeremy Beazlie), a callow, two-timing beanpole who's employed as a strip mall security guard and suffers odd aftereffects from a previous job as pest exterminator. Driven mad by the goings-on at the fundamentalist church next door, Erin enlists Steve in a scheme to sabotage the congregation's services. Ina, who is also on conjugal terms with Steve, is recruited as the third leg of this mischievous triangle.
The planning leads to a discussion about misogynistic tendencies in extremist sects, ironic in that Erin and Ina are both involved with a young man who has scant regard for the women he chronically betrays. Still, despite all the fine character detail, there is a disconnect among the plot elements. Nothing in the caper or the nature of the relationships justifies the bloody turn the play ultimately takes. One suspects that the conclusion was something the playwright meant to revisit but never got around to. It's time for that rethinking.
Dardaris is bossy, nasty and needy in just about the right proportions; Anne Kennedy does a swell job of dressing her, in the pointy heels, low-cut blouses and tiny skirts that suggest a woman forever drawing attention to her assets. Beazlie has the toughest assignment, maintaining amicable relations with his women through a series of ever more implausible lies. His instincts for physical comedy are good, especially in his amorous opening scene, in which he's called on to communicate the pleasures of the flesh entirely with his back muscles.
Until the play's clunky final moment, meanwhile, Acheson has us where she wants us, in utter sympathy with a mixed-up girl in a copy-shop smock, caught in that classic vise, between a dead-end job and a dead-end lover.
The Radiant Abyss, by Angus MacLachlan. Directed by Lou Jacob. Set, James Kronzer; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; costumes, Anne Kennedy; sound, Ryan Rumery; fight choreographer, Paul Galigar. Approximately two hours. Through July 18 at Kennedy Center Film Theater. Call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.