'Iris': Stage full of lonely, damaged souls seeking security

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Scott Bryce (left) and Julianna Zinkel.

There are many things that People's Light and Theatre's world premiere, The Harassment of Iris Malloy, by Zak Berkman, is not. It is not a Mamet-style tale of a woman cooking up a scheme to entrap a senator because women can be just as ruthless as men. It is not the story of a privileged man taking advantage of an underprivileged woman. It is not easy the same way life-changing decisions made in real time are not easy.

Whenever it seems that Berkman has written himself into a much-used corner, somehow, he finds another door. Iris (Julianna Zinkel), an Atlantic City casino waitress and single mother of two sons, spends one night with the senator from Colorado (Scott Bryce), a presidential contender who is hawking a memoir recounting his 10 days as a prisoner of war and a subsequent three-year booze-and-"call girl"-fueled fall from grace.

One of Iris' coworkers, Sticker (Peter Pryor), acts on a hunch, films the hotel's hallway side of the encounter, and now he, Iris, and Iris' no-nonsense single sister Cydney (Teri Lamm) have to make some important decisions.

So, yes, that sounds awfully hackneyed, and Berkman acknowledges he's pulled much of it from the saga of Bill Clinton's troubled evening with Paula Jones. Certainly, Bryce has a handsome magnetism that recalls that Arkansan governor, and Zinkel's neurotic Iris - once she allows herself to relax into the uniqueness of the situation - seems to shed her cares like the protective khaki overcoat she finally, willingly, removes.

But what makes this drama so interesting, besides some truly knockout performances from its cast, is that the senator/waitress tryst is its least interesting plot point. Directed with a palpable empathy by Lisa Rothe, the play is really about a stage full of lonely, damaged souls seeking security. That they're doing so in the generic luxury of set designer Daniel Zimmerman's greige hotel rooms makes it that much sadder and lonelier.

Of course, the senator and Iris aren't on an equal footing, and while Berkman would like to create a parallel between the power of Iris' fertile mind and ambitions and the senator's, they're just not playing from the same deck. A wealthy senator has the privilege of walking away from it all and returning triumphant; his kids will still get the best education and therapists money can buy. A 30-ish woman with a devastating upbringing, a high school education, and no real plan, money or connections is most likely courting disaster.

As any Atlantic City resident ought to know, you might be the one rolling the dice, but ultimately the house always wins.

Playing at People's Light and Theatre Company's Steinbright Stage, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Through July 10. Tickets: $37 to $79. Information: 610-644-3500 or PeoplesLight.org.

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