The situation revealed early on in Zak Berkman's taut drama The Harassment of Iris Malloy feels so familiar it's easy to make assumptions, which is what the playwright — also People's Light’s producing director — intends.
We see Iris (Julianna Zinkel, in a marvelously nuanced performance), an Atlantic City hotel catering waitress, visit the suite of Senator Aarons (Scott Bryce) after her shift. The potential presidential candidate's handler George (Peter Pryor) confiscates Iris's cell phone for "security reasons," and leaves them alone. He pours himself a drink; she accepts one too.
One can reasonably assume that some sort of Bill Clinton/Paula Jones “he said, she said” encounter will ensue that, if anyone finds out, could ruin his career and make her famous. But Berkman doesn't take us down that road.
Action alternates between two tracks: their private encounter, and what happens afterward. Iris, a single mother, goes home in the middle of the night, where sister Cydney (Teri Lamm) confronts her. A sketchy character from the hotel, Sticker (Pryor), calls with a proposition: Hoping for something juicy, he installed a camera in the hallway outside the senator's suite, capturing Iris entering and leaving. Could they sell the tape and the story to TMZ and other media?
Sticker tells the sisters, who barely make ends meet, "You’ve got gold if you've got something to feed the beast." But what really happened? Can they make a killing and escape their lives?
Berkman and director Lisa Rothe build the story expertly from there, providing the cynical commentary we expect about modern media, but more importantly, delving into "our narrow definitions of winning and losing." They explore ideas of gender and financial privilege in American society alongside Iris's journey of self-discovery.
Antiseptic look, sincere feelings
The production boasts Daniel Zimmerman's coolly modern set, defined primarily by the antiseptic and bland hotel room that for Iris is unexpected luxury, but for Aarons, just another anonymous room. Sliding wall panels that are also translucent when backlit make for instantaneous scene changes, allowing the many timeline shifts that build the play's suspense. Tyler Micoleau's expert lighting and Tracy Christensen's costumes make this sparse world feel real, just like the characters inhabiting it. Bryce's senator is appropriately charismatic, but reveals inner turmoil and subtle outer physical vulnerability expressed by a Bob Dole-like damaged arm. Pryor's main character, Sticker, hunched over, with stringy, disheveled hair, is extreme but recognizably real. Zinkel and Lamm, similar in appearance, but carrying opposing degrees of psychologically protective armor, make the sisters and their survival issues very genuine.
Ultimately, though, this is a story about lost and damaged souls, and the different rules by which the working poor and the rich and famous live and die. Berkman doesn't provide answers for The Harassment of Iris Malloy's many issues; the play's surprising ending could be Iris's defeat or victory, or both.