ST. PETERSBURG — There are no woolly mammoths in Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England, except for the silhouettes that flicker on walls in the American Stage production that opened last weekend. Instead, Madeleine George's comedy is populated by a more contemporary species, the staff and students of a liberal arts college.
Where the mammoths figure in is that they are the showpieces of Pratt Museum, a dowdy campus institution that trustees have decided to tear down. They want to make room for a posh dorm to attract more students prepared to take out backbreaking loans in order to keep the school afloat.
At the center of the matter is Cindy Wreen (Martha Wilkinson), dean of the college, once a high-minded academic and now a high-powered fundraiser. As she tries to negotiate the choppy waters between museum supporters and trustees, the dean also is juggling her relationships with her new girlfriend, a yoga instructor half her age named Andromeda (Stefanie Clouse), and her former longtime partner, Greer (Kim Crow), a philosophy professor with cancer.
Wreen insists that Greer move back in with her and Andromeda, whose enthusiasm for "alternative kinship structures" is a running joke. This arrangement sets up an amusing, if predictable, rivalry between Greer's hardnosed rationalism and the younger woman's new age spirituality, though ultimately they bond over reruns of Friends.
Seven Homeless Mammoths, smartly directed by Karla Hartley, gets a terrific performance from Wilkinson, who deftly treads the line between screwball comedy and passionate lesbian sexuality. Perpetually on the defensive about selling out scholarly ambition for administration, her Wreen is a wisecracking, brassy dame whose rants are hilarious. The Pratt's eccentric collection is "not a museum," she sputters, it's a "curio cabinet."
Andromeda is saddled with too many clunky speeches on feminism and other forays into political correctness, but Clouse prevails to create a sympathetic young woman in the end. Crow must be getting used to portraying cancer patients, having starred in Wit at American Stage last fall, and her musing on death as Greer and Andromeda cuddle on the sofa is very moving.
George grew up in Amherst, Mass., which is what amounts to ground zero for youth culture in the Northeast. The town and surrounding region are clogged with prestigious colleges such as Amherst, Williams, Mount Holyoke and Smith, and the playwright obviously knows the territory well. The perennial tension between town and gown is personified by the "gnomic" caretaker of the museum, drolly played by Brian Webb Russell, who functions as a kind of Greek chorus in reciting quirky items and letters to the editor in the local New Englander from his cluttered basement office.
The students are represented in a backhanded way by Early Man 1 (Vincent Stalba) and Early Man 2 (Jonelle Meyer), a pair of figures in animal skins in the museum's diorama. Their dialogue mainly consists of knuckleheaded fantasies of sex and drugs, and it's none too flattering as a commentary on the state of higher education, sounding like Beavis and Butthead.
George can be a longwinded writer, and in the Sunday matinee I saw, it took a while for her language to grab hold, but once the play gained momentum, it was a lot of fun, full of telling cultural touchstones, from the caretaker's ode on compost to a ring tone of Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air. It all takes place on Scott Cooper's ingenious set that encompasses the dean's kitchen, sunken living room and upper-level bedroom, the diorama and the caretaker's office.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.