Fist in Pocket Theater
@ Manbites Dog Theater
Through June 28
The structure of Washing Machine, Jason Stuart’s eerie little multispeed jigsaw of a play about the accidental death of a 5-year-old girl in a laundromat actually parallels what her would-be rescuers tried to do to save her life: It shatters the event into sharp little shards of narrative, movement, light and sound, as we slam-segue among 10 or so witnesses before, during and after the accident.
Elizabeth Rhodes’ uncanny sound design and Ben Kato’s prismatic lights (both of whose hairpin technical cues were flawlessly executed by Beth Slepian) reinforce the jerking back and forth among the characters’ conflicting accounts. But Michael Chamberlin’s consistently in-your-face directing choices turn this brief show into a harangue, one whose characters don’t seem to know what to do with us after repeatedly grabbing us by the lapels, long after that strategy has lost its novelty.
Duke graduate Dana Berger navigates this collection of characters with energy to spare, though she’s been directed to strike similarly wide-eyed, open-mouthed expressions of horror a few too many times in this hour-long show. Still, it would be a shame to miss her most affecting work here, when she embodies the victim’s unnamed stepbrother. He’s a gruff little guy, into zombies, tough talk and rock, but Stuart’s script and Berger’s performance gives him real poignancy when the early onset of puberty unexpectedly opens up a chasm between him and the girls he’s hung around with all during childhood. “I started shaving at 11,” he complains; “Three years later I’m a fuckin’ werewolf. I sound like a man. I’m not ready to sound like a man.”
Berger ably portrays an icy claims adjuster whose professional detachment erodes into obsession over the little girl’s fate, a manufacturer whose self-righteous sense of entitlement doesn’t prevent him from asserting those same qualities on a prospective litigant (in one of Stuart’s least subtle passages), and a scary old retiree with the following view on God: “Don’t tell me we’re not punished.” Unfortunately, the show’s spin-cycle scene changes make these and other characters’ identities and actions unintelligible at times.