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Review: ‘The Harassment of Iris Malloy’ at People’s Light in Malvern, PA

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Feed the Beast! Money, power, fame! It’s all here, along with a touch of sleazy sex in the world premiere of The Harassment of Iris Malloy. Who exactly is being harassed becomes the mystery as the story unfolds.

Iris (Julianna Zinkel) is a hard working single mom, living paycheck to paycheck, slaving as a waitress in an Atlantic City casino hotel. She is spotted by an attractive older senator (Scott Bryce) who orders his assistant/pimp to bring her to his hotel room at the end of her shift. What exactly happens next will take the entire 90 minutes to unfold, as the scene is interrupted by the events of the upcoming few days.

Scott Bryce and Julianna Zinkel. Photo courtesy of People's Light.

Scott Bryce and Julianna Zinkel. Photo by Mark Garvin.

It seems that a trashy hotel staffer called “Stickers” (Pete Pryor) has surreptitiously shot a video of Iris leaving the senator’s room. He approaches her and dangles the possibility of fame and, more enticingly, money, if she’ll cooperate in creating a scandal that will bring down the senator’s plan to run for president. Iris and her overworked sister/babysitter (Teri Lamm) are actually agreeable lower class people struggling to make a better life in an uncaring world. Perhaps a six-figure payday could take them away to an improved life? The senator seems a likable chap, but a moment of flexible morality might be worth escaping their Atlantic City treadmill.

Playwright Zak Berkman has other themes in mind as well. Does society offer men and women different opportunities based on gender? The senator comes from a privileged background, and has worked hard to recover from a few bad decisions. Iris is unmarried with two children, struggling to survive, but our society’s expectations govern the limited choices she has. What exactly does it mean today to be a “good mother”? Making a “fantastic life” for herself would require hard decisions that the world would frown upon.

So there are two plays at work here. One about a trapped young mother trying to give her children a better life, and another that might be titled Feed the Beast, about our insatiable media driven desire for celebrity sleaze. The two plays climax at different times, and Berkman has difficulty sustaining the tension through the long final scene. The ideas, the smart dialogue, the characters, and the wonderful production make the journey worth it.

The acting ensemble could not be bettered. Zinkel’s Iris is troubled, terrified of the choices she has to make and yet attractive and sympathetic.  Lamm as her morally drifting sister makes an excellent foil, as she tries to find a way out of their imbroglio.

Bryce as the senator, at first appears to be a typical politician/horndog, but as his scene develops, he becomes more complex and likable. Stirring the brew is Pete Pryor as Stickers, a nerdy creep, who plans to make everyone rich at the senator’s expense. These characters are richly portrayed and each scene, as directed by Lisa Rothe, is fully realized. Especially noteworthy are the physical performances. Iris clutches her body fearfully but later relaxes as he has a few drinks. Stickers is a total mess of physical quirks shaping a memorable performance, not to mention that Pryor is unrecognizable is two smaller roles.

Peter Pryor and Julianna Zinkel. Photo courtesy of People's Light.

Peter Pryor and Julianna Zinkel. Photo courtesy of People’s Light. Photo by Mark Garvin.

The play constantly shifts from the senator’s elegant hotel room to Iris’ plain characterless apartment. The many scene changes are elegantly handled in Daniel Zimmerman’s scenic design, featuring moving panels, and scrims that always suggest the neon glitter of Atlantic City. Tracy Christensen’s costumes perfectly define the class differences of the characters and elevate the storytelling. Tyler Micoleau’s lighting is constantly changing and totally defines the various locales, while Justin Ellington’s creative original music keeps the performance moving smoothly.

This play will generate a good deal of discussion about gender roles and media. Dramaturg Gina Pisasale has assembled an absorbing group of interviews at peopleslight.org, which add additional depth to the play’s themes.

Teri Lamm and Julianna Zinkel. Photo courtesy of People's Light.

Teri Lamm and Julianna Zinkel. Photo courtesy of People’s Light. Photo by Mark Garvin.

One element of disappointment comes with the requirements for world premiere plays. If one wants to have a play professionally produced in today’s theater world, it means 1). 90 intermissionless minutes, 2) one basic set, and 3) a four-actor limit  As a result, many of the best moments of Iris Malloy occur offstage. Iris’ children motivate much of what she does, and it would give her character more depth if we could meet them. Stickers is under the thumb of his genius brother who masterminds the schemes. That sounds like a great role as well. The senator’s spotting of Iris and dispatching his minion to fetch her sounds like an intriguing moment, while one of the play’s two climaxes involves the long-suffering wife of the senator. Her appearance would be welcome.

Perhaps The Harassment of Iris Malloy will reach its final incarnation as an excellent film? In its present form it is well worth seeing.

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The Harassment of Iris Malloy plays through Sunday July 10, 2016 at People’s Light – 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern, PA. For tickets call the box office at (610) 644-3500 or purchase them online.

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