The Atlanta apartment building of S.M. Shephard-Massat's "Starving" is one heck of a heartbreak house. Let's see: On the first floor, there's lonely, middle-aged Archer, raising vegetables in lieu of children. Across the hall is young Bettie, who hasn't a clue what Meeker, her dog of a husband, is up to in the boudoir while she's out of town. Above them is feisty Freida, still in mourning after all these years for the daughters she lost in a car accident. And next door to her is Rosetta, a divorced schoolteacher who has a pretty racy notion of homework.
Shephard-Massat's idea in this lukewarm drama, receiving its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth, is to envelop us in early 1950s Atlanta, where a burgeoning black middle class from all over the South is making nests. Civil servants, Pullman conductors, cabdrivers -- hardworking people, in the up-by-the-bootstraps tradition of America -- share the financial and emotional struggles of all who dream of better lives. And their stories, the playwright asserts, demand to be sewn into the polyglot quilt of American theater.
So what you've got on the Woolly stage -- aside from the fabulous rendering of the building by set designer Daniel Ettinger -- is a patchwork itself: a little bit Chekhov, a little bit August Wilson, a hint of the Stanley and Blanche of "A Streetcar Named Desire." In many of the vignettes, the playwright gently teases out the tensions and traumas of the apartment house and the people in its orbit. But something's missing in the web of stories that Shephard-Massat threads together. Giving everyone virtually equal say, the play accords no one the loudest voice. It is as if the writer were interested only in subplots.
That is all right, as far as it goes. At the end of almost 21/2 hours, though, you are not left with an especially powerful involvement with any of the eight characters in the ensemble comedy-drama, directed by Seret Scott. The dramatist assigns them all sorts of burdens: Dolsiss (Bethany Butler) is waging a losing battle with addiction; Freida (Lizan Mitchell) copes with sudden spasms of grief; Bettie (Jessica Frances Dukes) must come to terms with her own lost innocence. There is labor trouble for Felix (Doug Brown) down at the sanitation department, and a more menacing kind of trouble awaiting outwardly prim and proper Rosetta (Dawn Ursula).
Rosetta's propensity for hooking up with the wrong men leads, perhaps, to the evening's most unconvincing interlude -- a homage of sorts to the brutal date-with-destiny encounter between Stanley and Blanche. In "Starving," however, the violent event feels incidental. There is no meaty buildup to this harsh moment -- it almost seems unprovoked -- and the staging conveys none of the scary, adrenaline-fed unpredictability it demands.
As a result of such incidents, the attachments we are supposed to form with the souls of "Starving" never fully develop, and the crescendo we're expecting never occurs. That is not the fault of the acting per se, as several actors turn in appealing performances. Ursula, alternately snooty and terrified, incisively gets at the masks the insecure Rosetta hides behind. As Archer, Craig Wallace creates a man of earnest dignity, the kind of good guy in drama who's forever denied the girl. The always-enjoyable Michael Anthony Williams inhabits another appealing character in Dolsiss's hapless father. And Mitchell's bossy Freida is an amusing addition to the gallery of women of plainspoken truths who often turn up in plays like this.
Anchored firmly in naturalism, "Starving" is a change-up for Woolly, where the plays more often walk on the wilder side. The production allows the company, most successfully, to show off its technical dexterity. Ettinger's high-rise set places the tales of "Starving" in nifty compartments. (One of the better aspects of Scott's staging is the way tenants matter-of-factly go about their business, even when the action shifts to activity in other units.)
Kate Turner-Walker's costumes skillfully reflect department-store fashion of the '50s, and the music that filters in, care of Mark Anduss, effectively doles out the blue notes. In the background sights and sounds, at least, "Starving" feels fully fleshed out. It's in the foreground where things never completely come into focus.
Starving, by S.M. Shephard-Massat. Directed by Seret Scott. Lighting, Dan Covey. About 2 hours, 20 minutes. Through Dec. 18 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Call 202-393-3939 or visit www.woollymammoth.net.