REVIEW: The Harassment of Iris Malloy raises many questions — now on stage at People’s Light

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For Digital First Media

When Monica Lewinsky turned 40 she decided she didn’t want to be remembered as the nation’s most famous Presidential intern. She went to Vanity Fair magazine and bared her soul instead of the undergarments various media had offered her large sums to pose in.

In Zak Berkman’s provocative new play The Harassment of Iris Malloy a woman in a situation not too distant from Monica’s makes a different set of choices, as does the prominent man she encounters. It’s a play that asks, what do you do when you’re slammed against the digital wall? How do you remain a person when the world wants to turn you into a meme? Some like Monica pause and think, try to regroup. After a big mistake at 22 and nearly two decades trying to remake her life, Lewinsky is dismantling the box she was placed in by the media. Now she crusades against cyberbullies. She decided not to play celebrity roulette.

Lewinsky’s story is all too real. Berkman’s play, now in its world premiere at People’s Light in Malvern creates compelling drama but among those watching some may be silently asking – is it believable?

PHOTO BY MARK GARVIN Julianna Zinkel and Scott Bryce in a scene from "The Harassment of Iris Malloy."

Julianna Zinkel and Scott Bryce in a scene from “The Harassment of Iris Malloy.”

Iris Malloy, a single mother waitressing at an Atlantic City casino hotel – the terminus of so many failed dreams – makes several fateful decisions after catching the eye of Senator Aarons, an aspiring and surprisingly inspiring presidential hopeful who’s speaking and staying at the hotel. Through a staffer he extends Iris an invitation to his room. The results are not necessarily what scandal-hardened audiences might expect but they illustrate the dangerous intersection built since the end of the First Clinton Era where politics, feminism, the media and the economy meet.

The action moves back and forth in time as we see the encounter between Iris and the senator unfold and witness the steps she takes after she learns a morally impaired coworker has timestamped video of her entering and leaving the senator’s room.

Now this uneducated but bright young woman from a dysfunctional family is caught in a trap largely fashioned by others but naively decides to dive headlong into the celebrity cloaca. Using the kind of odds AC loves, Iris must calculate the risks and benefits about telling what happened in the Senator’s room. How she rolls those dice makes up much of the action of the play but also conflicts with what we think we know about her.

“The actor brings questions onto the stage,” playwright Arthur Miller wrote in 1981. “Which of them a play chooses to answer, and how they are answered, are the ruling and highly consequential imperatives which create the style of a play…In a word, the actor’s appearance on the stage in normal human guise leads us to expect a realistic treatment.”

Are Iris’ actions realistic or has our debased culture made it impossible to tell? Do the Senator’s seemingly heartfelt confessions – he’s an odd cross between Gary Hart and John McCain – make him honorable or merely self-centered?  Are the 99 percent of working Americans really this ready to turn their worst moments (to paraphrase novelist J.P. Donleavy) into cash? Iris has gotten audiences (and critics) ruffled and all one can suggest is – go see for yourself.

Whether you decide this is a theatrical pot-boiler or a realistic floodlight focused on problems we all share in our new Gilded Age of fast money and faster gossip, it’s a real pleasure to watch this small cast under the direction of visiting director Lisa Rothe at work. As Iris, PL cast member Julianna Zinkel can go from cool to fiery in a wink, describing how she was fascinated by the way the senator cleaned the rim of his drink glass with his thumb, then shouting down her sister in a no-holds-barred sibling struggle.  Watching Zinkel silently calculating her life choices from moment to moment with no room for error is entirely engaging.

Veteran stage, TV and film actor Scott Bryce as Senator Aarons is able to make this enigmatic former war hero and POW both sympathetic and troubling by turns. Teri Lamm who was so splendidly snobbish as Fanny Dashwood in last season’s Sense and Sensibility is Iris’ forceful and forthright sister Cydney who despite a cracked moral compass and a vocabulary that would embarrass Jerry Springer has managed to keep the Malloy family together. The veteran PL cast member Pete Pryor anchors the show with his intense, creepy, awkward and tirelessly focused portrayals of Iris’ con man co-worker Sticker and two other supporting roles.

Daniel Zimmerman’s set is appropriately cool, soulless and unmarked as a modern airport lounge or an extended-stay suite out by the interstate.

The Harassment of Iris Malloy continues at People’s Light, 39 Conestoga Road in Malvern through July 17. For tickets call 610.644.3500 or www.peopleslight.org

Kudos to PL and SEPTA for offering the Route 204 bus on “SEPTA Saturdays” to take theatergoers from Paoli train station to PL and back for Saturday 2 p.m. matinees. Let’s use this service!

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