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The Beginning of August

Reviewed by David A. Rosenberg

Presented by and at the Atlantic Theater Company, 336 W. 20 St., NYC, Oct. 11-Nov. 12.

At first glance, everything seems hunky dory at "The Beginning of August." The sun shines, the birds sing, the grass is mown, the back door closes with a reassuring click. Ah, but inhabiting all these Ozzie and Harriet niceties are five isolated characters who, by the end of Tom Donaghy's doughy play at the Atlantic Theater Company, must coalesce.

After a nervous breakdown, Pam has left the fastidious Jackie, who hires his stepmother, Joyce, to watch their baby. Hanging about are Ben and Ted, the first a young, slow-working painter with a yen for the absent Pam, the second a gardener who lives two houses away and has had a fling with Jackie. There's also an unseen next-door neighbor, who creeps about with a flashlight, a female Diogenes yearning to connect.

The intertwining of these lonely, needy, frustrated people is the subject of Donaghy's drama, a work stymied by the playwright's creeping didacticism. "To belong, that is perhaps something we all want," says Joyce in a not particularly startling exchange that leads into Jackie's long-winded wind-up, which offers everyone a share in bringing up baby. Finally, these characters in search of a home, a central core, find the kind of forgiveness that will replace chaos with order.

Worthy as the sentiments are, they're presented fitfully, lurching ahead like a car with stripped gears. But ahead the play goes, under Neil Pepe's focused direction. Mary Steenburgen beautifully melds insight with dopiness as Joyce, a wise yet foolish woman on the verge. There's not much to dig for in the other characters, but Garret Dillahunt as Jackie, Jason Ritter as Ben, Ray Anthony Thomas as Ted, and Mary McCann as Pam admirably outline their roles.

This is a carefully wrought realistic production, with set by Scott Pask, lighting by Christopher Akerlind, costumes by Ilona Somogyi, sound by Janet Kalas, and music by David Carbonara.

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