Before writing a critique, especially of a play I'm on the fence about, I'm tempted to find reviews of previous productions and see whether my response was unusual. That wasn't an option this time, as Harlequin presents the first full production of The Americans Across the Street, a dramedy by Carter Lewis, anywhere. I'm respectful of companies' desire to workshop and debut new material, but it can come at a cost: the work sometimes seems unfinished, lacking structural solidity or measured punch. Such, I'm afraid, is the case with Americans.
This is one of those plays in which proximity to family resolves all problems - as opposed to real life, where it causes the vast majority. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Derek Slaughterhouse has been waging a one-man campaign against his neighbors. His sister and niece show up on his doorstep, and although he tells them in no uncertain terms to leave, they never do. After not much of consequence happens, the play resolves in what may as well be a group hug. Surprised?
It's not that director Linda Whitney isn't trying. Her set design, a two-story house with a wraparound porch, is gorgeous, even by Harlequin standards. It's lit beautifully, with dreamy animations and falling leaves marking the passing of seasons. Tom Sanders essays the lead role, his first at Harlequin, with bitter humor; yet the name Slaughterhouse promises a go-for-the-jugular ferocity the script never quite allows him to play. Slaughterhouse spends much of his first scene railing like Holden Caulfield at the phonies of his affluent neighborhood - an obese woman who sells diet aids, an oil company exec who wastes water - so we're invited to sneer at Americans more loutish than ourselves. The play never has the guts or vicious streak needed to tear into hypocrisies closer to home; any Carlin monologue selected at random was more willing to offend. One senses Lewis is reluctant to bite the hands that feed him, so he settles for caricatures. Slaughterhouse's overweight neighbor makes movie monster sound effects crossing the street. She isn't chubby like Harlequin ticket-buyers, folks, so relax! She's the Rancor.
There's little sense of flow between scenes. At one point someone shoots out one of Slaughterhouse's windows, but nobody comments on this action for the rest of the play. A raid on an empty house trips alarms, but no charges or filed. Our heroes are dosed with hallucinogenics, but no one so much as barfs.
Ann Flannigan does her best with Slaughterhouse's indigent sister Alexa, but we never feel true desperation. The character of Phoebe, Alexa's daughter, is ill-conceived. We're supposed to be concerned for her emotional state, but she's so gentle and warm she says "duck blue" rather than swearing. Has Lewis ever met a teenage girl? They're possessed.
It's a nice play. Nice. Want to know how to win the Pulitzer for real? Check out last year's Clybourne Park, which won by telling stories of dueling neighbors with rather more venom.
[Harlequin Productions, The Americans Across the Street, $20-$31, 8 p.m. Thurs. - Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. through Sept. 15, 202 4th Ave. E., Olympia, 360.786.0151]