“I have this little life, and I don’t know what to do with it,” says the jaded heroine toward the end of Elizabeth Meriwether’s dark but sprightly play, “The Mistakes Madeline Made.” There’s guilt in her confession: how dare I feel unhappy when my unhappiness seems so gosh-darn trivial? It’s a juicy question, and Meriwether’s play poses it well.
This jaded Edna (Aubrey Dollar) is one of fifteen poor souls employed by a rich-beyond-rich family to make sure it can go about its day without dealing with, well, anything. Under the supervision of the cloyingly peppy taskmistress Beth (Colleen Werthmann), Edna orders shoes for the kid, packs snack bags, writes e-mails … it’s only been a week, and Edna’s already miserable.
Buddy (Patch Darragh), Edna’s brother, has been killed in Iraq while working as a reporter. We see him in a series of flashbacks: he installs himself in Edna’s college dorm bathtub, sorting through his notebooks. He refuses to wash himself. Buddy anchors the play’s questions about whether it’s possible to live a meaningful life when your circumstances are relatively comfortable and when you know that people in distant places are experiencing pain that far outstrips your own. Buddy’s is the life that makes Edna call her own life “little.”
The rest of Meriwether’s characters are mostly there to amplify and complicate the Edna-Buddy dynamic. There are the series of writers that Edna sleeps with to, as she puts it, “fuck [her brother] back to life.” David Jenkins plays all three, and he perfectly captures their luscious egotism. He doesn’t particularly distinguish them, but it doesn’t much matter, since all three are just foils for Edna’s discontent.
As Beth, the taskmistress, Werthmann hits all the nasal notes that Meriwether has scored for her. We know who she is the minute she opens her mouth. Meriwether tries to inject a bit of humanity into an otherwise two-dimensional character: in the final scenes of the play: There’s the token choked sob and the allusions to a pregnancy that ended badly. But Meriwether doesn’t much respect Beth, and the moments feel more like a playwright’s due diligence than real revelations of depth.
Meriwether’s pen is wicked funny. Sometimes it’s too wicked — that’s what happened with Beth and the trio of writers. We’re invited to mock people whom it’s easy to mock.
But sometimes the balance is just right.
Such is the case with Wilson (Michael Chernus), who works with Edna and Beth. He’s been with the rich-beyond-rich family for a long time, and likes to make noises. He makes the noise that the copier machine makes while he’s making copies. He roars like a race car and announces that the story he’s telling is racing towards its conclusion. He’s a weirdo.
But Meriwether lets him be conscious of his weirdness. He recognizes that making noises won’t get him the girl, and mocks his own consuming interest in Leibniz (“Nerd,” he snorts at himself). At heart he’s just an insecure guy, and Chernus plays him marvelously. Each hoot and whistle (and one delicious “ming-ting-ting”) is funny and telling.
As Edna, Dollar has the most textual meat. She’s got the physical tics of a twenty-something down, and her performance is fine, if uninspired, when it comes to the late-play breakdowns.
The first part of the play feels a bit like a sitcom. Characters are too conscious of their own cleverness; there’s a lot of proverbial eye-rolling in the audience’s direction. The early part of the play is pleasant enough, but Meriwether’s writing is at its strongest once the real questions catch up with the sense of humor.
The production — or perhaps the audience’s perception of it — gains depth as it progresses. Maiko Chii’s glistening white and grey set consists of row upon row of shelves, each stocked with the miscellany that the rich-beyond-rich family needs to get through the day: pristine arrangements of bottled water, towels, detergent and snacks, each in its pristinely lit space. What first seems a wry comment on Edna’s work environment acquires a sinister resonance as comments about Iraq become more frequent, and as fragments of other worlds fold in and out of the familiar white stockroom.
The story gradually accumulates similar heft. There’s desperation underneath the humor. By the end, Meriwether has presented a rich set of problems, and presented them well. The trouble is how to resolve them. In the final moments, Meriwether’s writing wilts as Wilson professes his love for Edna in a scene that lacks the play’s earlier wit and insight.
At its peak, though, when Edna has stopped showering, Wilson has started walking around with tissues up his nose, and Buddy’s bathtub has become a more obtrusive presence, the play tears along with a half-rueful, half-brutal energy that makes for some really wonderful theater.
And Madeline? She’s not all that important. Just a casual mention: one of many phrases, images, hoo-hahs and ming-ting-tings that Meriwether layers into her story. Sure, some get lost. But most stick.