The kid in the anguished new drama “Not Enuf Lifetimes” is jumpy but lovable, a dreamy do-gooder and a hip-hop buff. Your heart immediately goes out to him as he buys his baffled working-class dad a cup of coffee and tries to explain why he’s chucked the promise of higher education for risky social work in a rough downtown neighborhood.
With that, playwright Caleen Sinnette Jennings delves into all kinds of gaps — generational, racial, even religious. It’s a lot for a play (at the Atlas Performing Arts Center) that runs about 100 minutes. But if the script eventually feels slightly overloaded with crises, it’s also irresistibly empathetic. Jennings taps into a powerful sadness that only grows as well-meaning people keep failing to connect.
This is the second play by The Welders, Washington’s valuable new playwrights’ collective. The mission: Five D.C. playwrights are producing their own new works over three years and then turning over the whole operation to five different writers. The initiative, modeled in part on Manhattan’s 13P and other increasingly self-determining writers’ groups, fights the entrenched power of established theaters, where playwrights often lament that promising scripts get clogged in the institutional pipeline.
“Not Enuf Lifetimes” isn’t in perfect shape, but Jennings creates a small circle of engagingly complicated people. The center is Ian, the kid who’s running an after-care center and writing a grant proposal for an even more ambitious project. Kiernan McGowan plays Ian with sweetness but also with worried intensity; there’s a jittery dissatisfaction that drives all the tension in the play.
Ian’s a puzzle. His dad, an auto mechanic (persuasively blunt in Elliott Bales’s respectful performance), can’t figure out why his son would gravitate toward the kind of underclass and minority-dominated neighborhood his generation fled. Ronnie, a hip-hop poet who skeptically befriends Ian, tries to talk the fretful Ian out of his funk. So does Manjit (Shanta Parasuraman), a social worker who falls in love with Ian.
The cross Ian bears is that there are “not enough lifetimes” to undo the damage that whites have wreaked in America, a crushing weight that Jennings makes personal through perhaps the most unexpected character of all, Ian’s Catholic mother. Her strict upbringing turned her into the heavy in the household as Ian was growing up, and the damage she inflicted perhaps cannot be undone. It’s a difficult part splendidly played by Melissa Flaim, who utterly avoids a villainous stereotype with a flinty yet not unfeeling sense of right and wrong.
The traffic patterns on the small stage are awfully complex on designer Ethan Sinnott’s set, which too literally includes everything from a funky coffee shop to a graffiti-covered street and apartment interiors. The strength of director Psalmayene 24’s production is the acting, with David Lamont Wilson doing pivotal work both as the rhyme-writing Ronnie and as Ian’s landlord (who has some arch exchanges with Ian’s father). Every emotional showdown is handled with care.
The unfailingly earnest characters do have a tendency to overexplain themselves, and at the same time the play leaves you with nagging questions about the enigmatic Ian. You might resist the fate Jennings pens for him (along with a melodramatic complication or two in the play’s second half), yet it’s hard to imagine that you won’t care.
By Caleen Sinnette Jennings. Directed by Psalmayene 24. Lights, Allan Sean Weeks; costumes, Katie Touart; sound design, David Lamont Wilson. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 15 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets $15-$30. Call 202-399-7993 or visit www.thewelders.org.