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Theatre in Review: Public Servant (Theater Breaking Through Barriers/Theatre Row)

Christine Bruno, Chris Henry Coffey. Photo: Carol Rosegg.

Bekah Brunstetter's new drama examines small-town governance and its discontents; it also posits some distinctly odd ideas regarding how democracy should work. Ed Sink, proprietor of a furniture store, has decided it is time to give back to his North Carolina community; he gets himself elected county commissioner, hoping to make some kind of difference, but, as the play opens, all his only achievement is to add to his already plentiful supply of acid indigestion. He is first seen trying to get through the twenty-seven aggrieved messages on his office phone, including repeat calls from a voter obsessed with the pothole on the street where he lives. (An additional symbol of municipal dysfunction: The elevator in Ed's office building is out of order.) Adding to his woes, his plan for a new public swimming pool is dying by inches as, one by one, his colleagues pull their support. His personal life is in dire shape, too: He is separated from his bipolar wife (an overwrought shopaholic) and his daughter, Hannah, a college student, appears out of the blue, acting strangely evasive. In fact, she has returned home to obtain an abortion.

Little wonder that Ed is unenthused when in walks Miriam, a middle-aged New Yorker with cerebral palsy, her mood already darkened by the physically exhausting climb to his office. Her mother, a local resident, has died, and Miriam has inherited the house, which she intends to sell ASAP. But there's a looming beltway project that could reduce its value to little or nothing, and Miriam -- who has been trying to get pregnant -- needs the money for another round of fertility treatments. Ed's tentative attempts at helping her go awry, turning Miriam into something of a nemesis, even as she becomes embroiled in Hannah's problems. That a woman who cannot conceive becomes advisor-in-chief to a young lady looking to terminate her pregnancy is an irony not lost on Miriam, who worries that the clock is running out on her dream of motherhood.

There's a solid idea for an emotional/political triangle at the heart of Brunstetter's play, but she has trouble making sense of it. Hannah is terrified of being found out, and, in one particularly tense scene, is confronted on the phone by her mother, who has heard reports of her daughter standing outside the local Planned Parenthood office. So why did Hannah come home for the procedure, when she could have it in anonymity somewhere else? Even more alarming is the revelation that she can't identify the baby's father. "There were a lot of guys," she says. "I have this thing. This problem. I really like the feeling. Of being liked." I'll say she does -- and she's only a freshman! However, this news, which hints at far deeper problems, is mentioned only once, then dropped.

Ed's growing disenchantment with government bureaucracy is exacerbated by a series of confrontations with Miriam and Hannah. The latter, flying at him about his vote not to fund a public health clinic, asks, "What about poor people and black people and gay people and people in bad situations and people who aren't you, do you care about them?" He can barely get an answer out, about a no-new-taxes pledge, before she demands, "But shouldn't taxes be helping people?" That Ed doesn't tell her to pick up a newspaper once in a while shows tremendous restraint. Meanwhile, Miriam, justifiably frantic about her own prospects, spends half the play yelling at Ed for not dropping everything and solving her problem -- but is he the only politician in town? Might she not call the Department of Transportation herself? Left undiscussed are any issues about the proposed beltway and why it may or may not serve a larger good; the play has no interest in big-picture issues. Brunstetter engineers a happy ending of sorts, but it comes at the expense of Ed's treasured swimming pool project. The price of fulfilling Miriam's hopes is depriving hundreds of people -- who actually live in the town -- of a needed social amenity, but nobody seems to bother about that.

Under Geordie Broadwater's direction, the action ambles at an unhurried pace, taking time for moments of insight into three sadly deprived lives -- for example, when Ed, pushing his pool idea to the county board, tries to win over the room with a wan little sports cheer ("Go, Heels!") that lands with a thud. And sometimes Brunstetter's throwaway sense of humor casts a strangely revealing light. Hannah, ruing her situation, notes that her uterus "is a nihilist. It keeps rejecting life." Miriam, even more bemused, replies, "My uterus is friendly. It's like, 'Come on in! I made some dip!'" And, admittedly, the cast is adept at inhabiting this scratchy, solitary trio of lost souls. Christine Bruno captures Miriam's mounting panic, wedding it to a lacerating honesty that forces her to admit when she becomes too demanding of others; she unsparingly shows the character's difficulty in getting around -- when, for example, at Ed's behest she struggles to get into a wheeled office chair, an effort that proves unexpectedly perilous. Anna Lentz, a new face, is both steely and heartbreaking, as the script demands, as Hannah, who is making her first really adult decision even as she struggles to get out from under her parents' shadows. Chris Henry Coffey's Ed is a study in emotional deflation, both in his flailing attempts at adopting a glad-handing politician's manner and in his pained realization that his family is something of a mess.

Public Servant, like so many contemporary plays, is structured like a screenplay, with dozens of brief scenes that unfold all over the place. Fortunately, the scenic designer, Edward T. Morris, has come up with a clever solution, running along the upstage area a picket fence that opens in several places to reveal Ed's office, his kitchen, a front yard, and other locations; it allows for nearly instantaneous scenic transitions. Alejandro Fajardo's lighting and Courtney E. Butt's costumes are both solid, and even better is Sam Crawford's sound design, which includes James Taylor's "Carolina on My Mind," as well as a number of conversations that unfold over phones.

But Public Servant is dogged by a certain falsity, a problem not helped by an eleventh-hour scene in which Miriam and Ed get down with some weed and get real with each other. (This is one of my least favorite stage devices.) The play's biggest problem is its Frank Capra-esque notion that Ed should dedicate himself to solving each of his constituents' problems, without reservation. ("I don't need to explain this to you," Miriam says, having unloaded her troubles on Ed - but, really, she does; in the world of Public Servant, heartbreak is the only rationale for action.) That such a policy is not only unrealistic but also a recipe for disaster is not something the play wants to address; everybody in this town needs a refresher course in civics. --David Barbour

(7 June 2019)

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