Girl rage is powerful in Elizabeth Meriwether’s absurdist comedy “The Mistakes Madeline Made.” In a prickly, funny production by Naked Angels, that rage is every bit as hilarious as it is scary and sad. Crisply assured style and brainy content of play — which charts the breakdown of a newly minted college grad on her first brain-numbing job — suggests a bright future for this scribe, herself barely out of Yale. Naked Angels not only knows how to pick them, savvy company also knows how to present them.
There’s not a hair out of place in Evan Cabnet’s flawless production, which in a shrewdly marketed transfer could pull in elusive young auds.
It takes a while for heroine Edna’s soul-sucking angst to register, so taken are we by her withering comments about her brain-damaging first job. As one of 15 personal assistants to a disgustingly rich (and, thankfully, unseen) family of conspicuous consumers, quick-witted lass is assigned such innocuous chores as buying sneakers and packing after-school snacks for the householders’ 8-year-old son. But thanks to the deadpan earnestness of Laura Heisler’s droll perf, we get the point that these chores are like an ice pick to the brain, chipping away at her sanity.
Only one week into this intellectual gulag of a job and Edna has focused her disgust on Beth (Colleen Werthmann), the robotically efficient office manager in charge of the elaborately regimented “Household System” devised by the executive dad, who runs his home the way he runs his hedge fund.
“I compare it to the world order Milton created in ‘Paradise Lost,’ ” Edna explains. “God speaks to Adam. Adam speaks to Eve. Thus, for Eve, Adam is God. When I want God, I go to Beth.”
In real life, Beth would be a pathetic drone who kids herself that she is a member of the family but spends her holidays eating Lean Cuisine meals and watching HBO. Meriwether confounds that cliche by giving the character real dignity. In a diabolically perky perf, Werthmann (“Miss Witherspoon”) allows gung-ho Beth to preside over Lauren Helpern’s pristine office set with the pride and purpose of a five-star general in the Pentagon war room planning the coming attack on Iran.
“Every day it gets harder to hide my complete incompetence and my love of cock,” the neurotic heroine confides to the audience, which isn’t entirely surprised to learn that Edna tries to escape the futility of work in a service-industry economy by compulsively sleeping with egotistical poets. Brian Henderson (“The Little Dog Laughed”) plays three of these interchangeable nonentities with deadly charm and cruelty.
But Edna’s disaffection goes much deeper than workplace malaise. After the death of her brother, a war correspondent who passed on his legacy of despair, Edna was left with a burning rage and no outlet — until she discovers Madeline. Madeline is the weak sister taken to task by Dr. Joyce Brothers in “What Every Woman Should Know About Love and Marriage” for neglecting her husband.
“I find Dr. Brothers’ vibrant sense of blame refreshing,” Edna says. “Women should be punished,” she decides, for being oblivious, complacent and weak. And so she decides to punish Beth.
Growing hollow-eyed and fidgety in Heisler’s increasingly wacky perf, Edna shrinks into her skin and develops ablutophobia, the fear of bathing. Using her own body odor as a weapon, she tries to drive squeaky-clean Beth crazy. “I want to torture her. I want to cover her in dirt.”
In the process, Edna attracts the devotion of Wilson (Ian Brennan), another brainy young college grad who is going nuts in this bubble world of useless work. Wilson’s mind is so wasted that he can only express himself by imitating the robotic sounds of the computers and other machines he operates in the office. As played with endearing sweetness by Brennan (“The Distance From Here”), he is the poster boy for a generation of kids who have been educated for dead-end jobs in a society that no longer has any honest work to offer them.
Meriwether’s gift as a playwright is her ability to take what is familiar and real and view it through the distorted lens of absurdism. As free of artifice as her previous play, “Heddatron,” was thick with the stuff, “The Mistakes Madeline Made” takes a good hard look at how the world appears to a generation of smart young kids. From a safe distance, the picture is savagely funny. But when you get close enough, it looks like hell.