Out at Arlington’s Gunston Arts Center, the American Century Theater takes a more sober look at a later era in the country’s history: the ’20s, when booze was illegal and the recently enfranchised female half of the population was flexing its muscles—especially its intellectual ones. To showcase some of what theater’s smartest women were writing when they had precious little chance of getting it produced, director Steven Scott Mazzola has created Drama Under the Influence, an intriguing sort of collage built from half a dozen short plays by women writers, some famous and some obscure.
It’s largely a fascinating experiment. Mazzola confronts the farm women closing ranks in Susan Glaspell’s murder mystery Trifles with the fractious, class-conscious Europeans in Rita Wellman’s For All Time, and considers the jaundiced newlywed comedy of Dorothy Parker’s Here We Are in the afterglow of Sophie Treadwell’s Eye of the Beholder, with its incisive inquiry into roles and objectification. He swings through the humid urban evening of Eulalie Spence’s Hot Stuff, with its tough-talk tale of a risk-taking woman bookie, and returns to Glaspell for a brittle domestic comedy about psychoanalysis—Suppressed Desire, whose topic and tone couldn’t be further from the Midwestern home truths of Trifles. Mazzola frames the whole with the five fleet, elusive acts of a seventh play—Photograph, one of those playful Gertrude Stein deconstructions that starts with a notion and riffs until everyone’s thoroughly lost. (It’s fun, if you don’t insist on struggling to make sense of it.)
As often happens at American Century, there are bumpy bits and thin bits, but there are tasty moments enough: The Parker is a stitch, the Wellman is moving and then shocking, and Glaspell’s head-shrink play is a miniature riot. Clever man, Mazzola, to make ’em think and leave ’em laughing.