On Sundays Gothamist runs opinion pieces relevant to life in New York and reviews of recent books and performances. The judgments expressed below are entirely those of the author.

2006_04_arts_mistakes.jpg“Ablutophobia” – the fear of bathing – sounds more like a joke to be played out over a few days in a comic strip than a potential centerpiece for a play that has at least some serious things to say. But in Naked Angels’ The Mistakes Madeline Made, directed by Evan Cabnet, Elizabeth Meriwether has managed to take the concept and give it a vivid, complex context that make it into something considerably more than a quirky, funny problem. The Mistakes Madeline Made is itself quirky and funny in large part, but thanks to Meriwether’s clever writing, as well as to some excellent acting, it manages to be both often delightful for its humor and an exemplar of the way humor can make tough, dark issues come down to earth without coming off as either coarse or glib.

The story moves through three stages that might be identified as the nightmares of past and present followed by a hopeful, if sort of oddball, look to the future. The play opens as Beth (Colleen Werthmann, who steals all the scenes she’s in) watches with a brilliantly insane grin over Edna (Laura Heisler) as she uses an electronic stapler. The two are in the employ of a family that, as Edna puts it “may be the Platonic Essence of rich,” though Edna, who is the center of the play, never comes into actual contact with them. Beth rules her fellow servants with an obsessive-compulsive drive and iron fist; Edna, who is still a student and has only had the job for about a week, has a murderous hatred for Beth. Instead of actually murdering her, Edna and a nerdy coworker, Wilson (Ian Brennan, who has the boyishly awkward vibe down cold), start hiding the special Handiwipes that are meant to go with the rich family’s child’s afternoon snack – a crazy form of rebellion inspired in part, one guesses, by Edna’s growing ablutophobia. That in turn is rooted in the recent death of her brother (portrayed with dark intensity by Thomas Sadoski), who had been a newspaper’s war correspondent in Iraq and who stayed in her dorm for a brief while once between tours there; Edna’s nightmare of the past is a flashback to that time, when his mind and soul were wrecked by what he’d seen, inciting him to torment Edna from his perch in her bathtub. He takes out his anger at and loathing for a world that allows the atrocities of war to continue largely unremarked while it goes about its business, and Edna cannot shake the sense of guilt that he shoulders off to her, especially now that he’s dead, and especially now that she has to deal with Beth, whose loyalty to the rich family and their health is in such contrast to the world of terror the brother brought back.

As noted, Werthmann is fantastic as the super-dedicated, perfectionist Beth – anyone who has had the misfortune to assist someone like that will instantly recognize her, and shudder. As Edna, Heisler is not always as convincing; especially in the first part, when she’s dueling with Beth and struggling with her penchant for boinking grungy aspiring poets, she delivers her lines with a half-smile that says she doesn’t believe in her character. This changes in the powerful last part of the play, when everything – the primary psychic pain from her brother’s death and the behavior it led her into – finally catches up to her and triggers a breakdown, during which Heisler looks truly sick and lost. Fortunately, and this is the hopeful look to the future part, the geeky but very sweet Wilson has fallen hard for her and is there to prevent her from going totally off the edge. The utterly charming passages he reads from the journal he’s kept of his Edna-observations cap off the play in an optimistic fashion that I don’t often go for, but Meriwether’s unique and blessedly unsentimental writing make it work. Though there are a few seams in the staging and the occasional over-the-top language, The Mistakes Madeline Made is on the whole enormously engaging. The way it gradually changes the our understanding of Edna’s phobia (and other issues), the way it makes the audience feel something true and visceral about the big issue of the day – Iraq – but does so by connecting it to real life, and doesn’t have to rely on the fallback use of a soldier’s voice or a parody of Bush, is both impressive and encouraging. Here’s hoping more shows follow suit.

The Culture Project // 45 Bleecker St. // Through May 13, Tues.-Sat. 8pm, Sun. 7pm // Tickets at Smarttix