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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Richard Dresser's Augusta: Entertaining, but Messy

Also see Bob's reviews of Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill and ReEntry

Playwright Richard Dresser's 2006 Augusta is an uneasy blend of comedy and melodrama. Still, for the most part, it emerges as the pleasant, lightweight entertainment that it seeks to be without insulting thoughtful theatergoers.  This is particularly relevant here as Augusta does represent a change of pace from the more ambitious, high-minded plays which are the mainstay of Playwrights Theatre.

The very middle-aged Molly is a cleaning woman in a Maine office of a national home cleaning service.  Molly is the "team leader" on her crew.  She is dependent on the extra money which this supervisory position gives her because her husband is an invalid and unable to work.  As the play begins, Molly is being taunted by Jimmy, the new manager of the cleaning service office.  Jimmy is a smarmy, tin-plate dictator whose dislike for Molly seems to arise from his view that she is not being sufficiently deferential to him.  He has picked up on the fact that Molly was more than a close friend to his predecessor.

The next scene finds Molly on the job.   The only other member of her team is Claire, a recently hired, lazy young woman. They will be the only house cleaners we see throughout the play's multiple scenes as the commercially savvy Dresser works hard to limit Augusta's dramatis personae to three characters.  The strain of the effort is all too apparent.

During the course of their work, Molly and Claire seemed to develop some camaraderie.  Molly confesses that she has assigned the cleaning of the floor to Claire because a back injury prevents her from bending.  Molly fears that if Jimmy were to know of her injury he would fire her.  The dialogue of the first two scenes has been in the form of comic banter.

Now Augusta shifts abruptly into a dramatic key. There are a series of betrayals.  Claire tells Jimmy of Molly's disability, manipulating him to make her team leader. Jimmy brings Claire to a management conference on the pretext that he will introduce her to those who can move her into management, but his real intention is to keep her out of sight and take her to bed.  Valuable heirloom silverware goes missing from the house that Molly and Claire are cleaning.

Initially, the brewing conflicts feel like small potatoes.  After all, these beleaguered souls are plotting about a crumby domestic's job.  However, pretty early on here, author Richard Dresser, with the help of director John Pietrowski and a trio of fine actors, hones in on the universality of the nature of his home cleaning trio, their concerns and situation. For me, Dresser's greatest accomplishment lies in his ability to make us see our common humanity with the too easily dismissed, unaccomplished "little people" who populate his play.

Raye Lankford portrays Molly with an endearing feistiness.  There is a glint in her eye and sassiness to her tongue even as her body language signals her burdens.  Lori McNally subtilely reduces the brashness level in her performance to convey Claire's increasing maturity and sensitivity.  Jon Cantor nails the braggadocio of the sweaty and repulsive Jimmy.

Dresser has found a great deal of popular success with his clever, amusing Rounding Third, a light two-character comedy-drama about a couple of mismatched, feuding dads who come to appreciate and care for one another while co-managing a Little League baseball team.  Although lumpier than that effort and featuring characters who are not as sympathetic, with Augusta Dresser again provides ballast for his light entertainment by bringing empathy to his humorous, working class creations

Augusta continues performances (Thursday 2/5 – 5:30 PM / Thursday, 2/12 – 3:30  & 8 PM / Friday & Sarurday 8 P.M.) through February 15, 2009 at Playwrights Theatre, 33 Green Village Road, P.O. Box 1295, Madison, NJ 07940. Box Office: 973-514-1787; online: www.ptnj.org.

Augusta by Richard Dresser: directed by John Pietrowski

Cast
Jimmy……………………Jon Cantor
Claire…………………….Lori McNally
Molly………………    Raye Lankford


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- Bob Rendell



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