The wounded characters in Elizabeth Meriwether's finely crafted The Mistakes Madeline Made reveal themselves to each other and to us via startling emotional juxtapositions; quietly disquieting confessions of pathos and loss are scattered among their oddball interactions. Every element of this production—from the actors' empathetic performances to Evan Cabnet's nuanced, physical direction and Lauren Halpern's wonderfully realized set—coheres into a successful whole. Edna (Laura Heisler), a recent college graduate reeling internally from the loss of her older brother, has just landed the worst job imaginable: she is the assistant to an anal, preternaturally cheerful office manager named Beth (Colleen Werthmann). The office that Beth oversees—a space that approaches a Martha Stewart-level of organization and polish—exists solely to handle the affairs of an über-rich family whom we never meet, but whose specter of uptight, forced WASPish happiness haunts every moment of the play. Madeline opens as Beth assigns Edna the thrilling task of finding George, one of the family's sons, a second pair of New Balance sneakers because he enjoys wearing the pair he already owns so much.
Werthmann—flexing some of the same muscles she developed as the naïvely pleasant mother of the reincarnated title character in Christopher Durang's Mrs. Witherspoon last winter—has a masterful sense of comic timing. Her Beth is a personality we recognize instantly, perhaps from a childhood ballet class or a community service bake sale, a person so intent on happiness at all costs that we watch and wait for her veneer to crack under pressure.
Wilson (Ian Brennan), meanwhile, is the only office assistant under Beth's command who enjoys a small amount of autonomy. A socially awkward graduate student whose dissertation is in a permanent state of incompletion, he communicates in fits and starts, words rushing from his mouth and then jerking to a halt, like the linguistic equivalent of a turbocharged car constantly forced to stop at red lights. He has so much to say, and we see him finally finding someone to say it all to. Brennan accentuates Wilson's speech with singularly impressive sounds—sounds that imitate the copy machine and that represent his emotional responses to situations ("dong!" means something like happiness)—so that his talking becomes a whimsically unique cacophony.
Soon Edna begins to steal Handi Wipes from the new shipment that has just arrived and enlists Wilson to hide them around the office; their scheming escalates into "The Handi Wipe Caper," an act of sabotage that knocks Beth and her controlled environment off-kilter just long enough to allow a dramatically redemptive moment for all three of them.
We have come to recognize this kind of small-minded, corporate banality before, as in the comic strip Dilbert and the TV series The Office. It exists here not for its own comedic sake—though the writing and performances are all strong enough that it could—but as a counterbalance to the emotional detritus that Edna can no longer mask.
Heisler offers a commandingly downtrodden performance that not only holds its own against Brennan's emotional exuberance but also presents her character's depression as something that is at once childishly antagonistic and spiritually desolate. In a particularly haunting exchange, Edna meets up with yet another date (Brian Henderson hams it up as three iterations of the same would-be writer—Drake, Jake, and Blake—that Edna pursues) and admits, "You remind me of my dead brother. I'm trying to [expletive] him back to life."
As Beth fights to keep the office clean and tidy, Edna fights, equally hard, to pollute it with her bodily stench and her rebellious nature. Unable to stop reliving the week that she and her brother Buddy (Thomas Sadoski nicely portrays the war reporter as slovenly, erratic, and shell shocked) spent together after he returned from Iraq, she succumbs to his ablutophobia (fear of bathing) and confronts people with the force of her stench.
Halpern externalizes this relationship by placing a white ceramic bathtub for Buddy to lounge in center stage; only Edna can see the tub, a kind of gleaming sarcophagus, and the human remains it holds. Though we sense that Edna is not doomed, her inability to bathe is as much a response to Buddy's death as it is a protest against the entrapments of her office environment.
Last December, an issue of New York magazine identified 27 bright young things who might "justly be famous by the year 2010." With offerings like The Mistakes Madeline Made, Elizabeth Meriwether, who was listed among the 27, is well on her way.