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WEEKEND REVIEWS / Theater Review

Deft, Witty 'August' Easy to Warm To

Tom Donaghy's offbeat comedy, at South Coast Repertory, takes a fresh look at family relationships.

May 01, 2000|MICHAEL PHILLIPS | TIMES THEATER CRITIC

The house has a "mold spore issue." So the baby at the center of Tom Donaghy's sharp, eccentric new comedy "The Beginning of August," now at South Coast Repertory, must remain in a bassinet in the backyard, surrounded by adults ostensibly in charge, minus a conspicuously absent mother.

Donaghy's characters are coping with a period of transition. But what is life if not an extended transitional clause? Make all the preparations, plans and lists you like: They may help, but not if your wife disappears for a week, leaving behind the baby and a lot of unanswered questions.

In David Mamet's "Revenge of the Space Pandas," a 12-year-old girl says to a space panda, "When I grow up, all I want to be is flexible." Flexibility has never been more crucial to the American family than this "extraordinary time," as Donaghy's befuddled protagonist refers to the here and now.

The Mamet reference isn't casual. Mamet and Donaghy are founding members of the New York-based Atlantic Theatre Company. Atlantic artistic director Neil Pepe has staged South Coast Repertory's world premiere of "The Beginning of August," and is scheduled to direct its off-Broadway premiere next season at the Atlantic.

Donaghy is his own writer, but in his fragmentary, searching, often very funny exchanges, you hear echoes of Mamet's rhythmically distinct prose. "The Beginning of August" may be modest, and it hasn't yet found its proper coda. But it gets at some big issues without dragging out the Big Issue baggage. A previous Donaghy play, "Minutes From the Blue Route," treated family-dynamics issues with a more self-conscious hand. Here, he displays a surer sense of craft and wit, as well as a more intriguing sense of loss.

In Pepe's fine SCR production, there's an unsettling neatness to the backyard setting, with its trim green grass and too-blue sky and a suggestion of a yellow two-story suburban house, wittily designed by Scott Pask. That surface orderly quality suits Jackie (Geoffrey Nauffts), the father of the baby.

He's boggled by the disappearance of his wife, Pam (Mary B. McCann, who appears just before intermission but doesn't speak until later). Jackie has elicited the help of his late father's second wife, Joyce (Barbara Tarbuck), to baby-sit. A handyman, Ben (Todd Lowe), comes and goes at will, refinishing the wood trim inside, eventually making "electric lemonade" (heavy on the alcohol) for himself and for Joyce.

An easygoing lawn-care guy, Ted (Jeff Allin), lives down the block. He arrives for his monthly chores, weed whacker at the ready. He and Joyce smoke a cigarette. They talk about Jackie. Ted reveals to Joyce that he and Jackie had a sexual encounter recently. Quickly Ted realizes that Joyce has no idea who Jackie really is.

"I married in. We're not close," Joyce says.

Ted's solution to his awkward revelation: "If anyone says I was here, we talked about nothing."

Later, in a pungently funny monologue, Joyce ruminates on "the relationship between beer and broken homes. And the holidays. Everybody has to drive to too many houses. Trying to see everyone they're related to who doesn't live with them anymore due to assorted choices. In the days where there was one family, intact, you knew what house you were driving to. And there you stayed. At the homestead. Where you drank."

Now, too often, it's "drunk family members trying to prove to their extended broken families that everybody's important."

What will become of our children? In a consciously Chekhovian coda, Jackie wonders aloud what our offspring will think of us. Will they realize we did the best we could? Did we?

"The Beginning of August" doesn't quite know what to do with Pam once she arrives. That's too bad. There's a rushed quality to the final 20 minutes of this trim work, just under two hours in length.

In his final image, that of an improbable blended family forming before our eyes, Donaghy at once embraces and questions his all's-well solution. Yet it's a bit tinny.

Most of the play isn't; most of it's fresh and precise. Pepe's ensemble ranges from the quite-good (Allin's Ted) to the very good (everyone else), and in the best sense, his direction has a take-it-or-leave-it quality. He doesn't do anything to stylize writing that's stylized to begin with. Donaghy, making his SCR debut, is someone to watch, and to listen to.

*

* "The Beginning of August," South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tuesdays-Fridays, 7:45 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Ends May 28. $26-$45. (714) 708-5555. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.

Jeff Allin: Ted

Todd Lowe: Ben

Mary B. McCann: Pam

Geoffrey Nauffts: Jackie

Barbara Tarbuck: Joyce

Written by Tom Donaghy. Directed by Neil Pepe. Set by Scott Pask. Costumes by Shigeru Yaji. Lighting by Chris Akerlind. Sound by B.C. Keller. Production stage manager Jeff Gifford.

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