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A CurtainUp Review
The Beginning of August
Mary Steenburger
Mary Steenburger
(Photo: Carol Rosegg )
The Atlantic Theater often hosts plays that echo the cadences associated with its co-founder, David Mamet. Such is the case with Tom Donaghy's The Beginning of August which just opened at the Atlantic. Its five characters converse in clipped sentences that speak volumes through what's not said.

Donaghy is as much heir to the likes of John O'Hara and John Cheever as Mamet, in that he's staked out a terrain that might be called Donaghy country -- an Anywhere USA suburb (think New Jersey where the playwright grew up), populated by ordinary people with an extraordinary sense of having come unmoored. The Beginning of August revisits this familiar territory. The title is, as in the past, somewhat amorphous. While this adjective could also be applied to its characters, they are nevertheless often poignant and funny.

The grass-covered stage and the yellow vinyl-sided house at the side of the stage immediately set the tone for the this could happen to you situation: Jackie is a newly single parent, his wife Pam having walked out on him and their three-month-old baby girl. Unable to afford a hired caretaker, he's called in his stepmother Joyce who, being recently widowed, has time on her hands.

Before a word is spoken it's evident that this suburban trauma has lots of psychological baggage to unpack. Not only is Jackie understandably nervous, but he's compulsively in need to control everything as a way of making order out of internal chaos. His list of rules for his baby sitter include not just the usual emergency contact numbers but rules that include keeping the baby outside to avoid allergic reactions to spores inside the house, to not speak to anyone, not even to answer the phone. Joyce's willingness to abide by Jackie's rules has roots that date back to her marrying Jackie's father and unable to see six-year-old Jackie as anything bt an intrusion into her idea of a happiness.

To enliven what turns out to be more tragi-comic fable than slice of life drama there's Ben, a teenager, who's been painting the house and seems uninclined to leave because he's in love with the missing Pam. Revealing himself somewhat more gradually, there's also Ted, a homosexual neighbor whose lawn mowing services (and affection) Jackie no longer wants (this is the play's least convincingly developed plot complication). Finally, but not until well into the second act, there's Pam.

Ben, Ted and Pam, as well as the neighbor who is only glimpsed as a hand passing cupcakes and cookies over the wooden fence (the symbolic helping hand Jackie rejects and the ultimate symbol of suburban isolation) are crucial assets in driving home Donaghy's moral: While it may not take a village to raise a baby, some of us have to move beyond the conventional family configurations to do it. For the newly married Joyce the We equation was We=wife+plus husband- children. For Jackie, We= wife/part-time mother+husband/father. For Pam We=wife/mother+husband/father+others to help.

Garret Dillahunt does a fine job as as control freak. His Jackie is a human rubber band ready to snap any second. Mary Steenburgen manages to be enchantingly mischievous, vulnerable and scrappy as the desperate to please and heretofore maternally challenged Joyce. The inability of both these people to connect is the most incisive aspect of the play. It is most achingly evident in that they seem to resist any impulse to hold and hug the baby. Even more tellingly, they confide to a tape recorder. The script could use more moments like Joyce's forlorn "what would friends know about being lonely?" slipped into her gaily taped holiday letter to the friends who disappeared when her husband died.

The three other players, especially Jason Ritter as the young comic relief house painter and would-be lover, lend solid support. Neil Pepe and his capable designers nurture the production with the same care showered ( literally) on the baby the end of the play.

From Above
Minutes From the Blue Route Tom

By Tom Donaghy Directed by Neil Pepe
Cast (in order of appearance):Garret Dillahunt, Jason Ritter, Mary Steenburgen, Ray Anthony Thomas, Mary McCann
Sets: Scott Pask
Lighting: Christopher Akerlind
Costumes: Ilona Somogyi
Sound: Janet Kalas
Composer: David Carbonara
Atlantic Theater, 336 W. 20th St. (8/9th Aves) 239-6200
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one 15-minute Intermission
9/26/2000-11/05/2000; opening 10/11/2000

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 10/09 performance
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