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A 'DUI' Without Regret

American Century Theater revives works by women.

The title "Drama Under the Influence" is misleading for this collection of seven short plays; if you are looking for a connection between this "DUI" and alcohol, you will be surprised to find that, while some of the plays were written by women during America's experiment with prohibition, none of them are really about or even involve "demon rum."

The plays, which range from highly entertaining to mildly confusing, do offer a variety of views of then-contemporary life over the period 1914 to 1931. (Prohibition, on the other hand, ran from 1920 to 1933.) They are the products of a remarkable group of women playwrights.

The earliest piece is one of the most entertaining: A 1914 exercise in

punning whimsy by Susan Glaspell, co-writing with her husband, George Cram Cook. "Suppressed Desire" lampoons the then-latest scientific fad: psychoanalysis, with all its searching for hidden meaning in the mundane. "Henrietta" is the hen who rules the roost of the Brewster household. That's Brewster pronounced "Bah-Rooster."

She's disabused of her belief in the interpretation of dreams when her husband comes up with an interpretation of his own dreams — one that frees him to leave her and take a lover. He agrees to stay in the marriage, however, if she'll just agree to stop waking him up to see what he's been dreaming.

The cast for this three-person show features Mary McGowan as a marvelously up-tight spouse and William Aitken demonstrating a fine touch for ironic comedy. His silent portrait of frustration as he listens to his wife's tirade is a gem. Jennifer Robison is a delight as the young woman who shakes up their world.

ROBISON ALSO figures in the other play that vies for "most entertaining of the evening" honors. That play is "Here We Are" by the famous wit Dorothy Parker. In it, Robison is a bride in a train compartment with her husband on their way to a honeymoon in New York City.

They have a great deal of difficulty communicating with each other because obviously they have wed too early — their expectations may well be the same but their ability to put voice to intimate or even mundane issues is severely limited. It probably wouldn't be funny to a real life couple in such a predicament, but it is very funny for an audience to watch — especially as performed by Robison and the marvelously up-tight Colby Codding.

The most impenetrable and possibly perplexing piece in the collection is "Photograph: A Play in Five Acts" by Gertrude Stein which director Steven Scott Mazzola chooses to present in five fragments. They are performed before, after and between the other plays. As presented, they are pure language pieces with no real plot or character.

The other plays include Glaspell's 1917 murder mystery set in a farmhouse in the middle west, "Trifles," Sophie Treadwell's 1919 stylized "Eye of the Beholder," Eulalie Spence's 1927 look at life on the seedier side of Harlem's numbers rackets, "Hot Stuff," and Rita Wellman's 1920 "For All Time" which explores alternate memories of the same dear departed.

The collection is spotty, but contains some genuinely entertaining material and enjoyable performances.

Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland as well as Broadway, and edits Potomac Stages, a website covering theater in the region (www.PotomacStages.com). He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.