What defines a family? Does the traditional nuclear family still apply in a world of fast-paced information exchange? And what exactly is "pale ale"? These are only some of the questions posed in Tom Donaghy's The Beginning of August, which is receiving its world-premiere staging at South Coast Repertory. And while the answers are never clear, Donaghy's witty, inventively stylized language makes the questions themselves interesting enough.
Pam has run off, leaving her infant child in the hands of her husband, Jackie, who has called his stepmother, Joyce, to baby-sit. Joyce spends the day talking with Ben, the house painter who is in love with Pam, and Ted, the neighbor who is in love with whomever will love him back. Pam's eventual return produces a hodgepodge arrangement of odd relationships that effectively turns everyone involved into one big dysfunctional family and a modern-day commune. It may take a village to raise the kid in this play, Donaghy seems to say, but that doesn't mean the village people have a clue as to what they're doing.
The real wonder in this modern-day comedy of manners is that Donaghy, director Neil Pepe and the talented cast somehow manage to make characters that seem so unappealing in synopsis thoroughly likable in practice. Jackie (Geoffrey Nauffts) is so anal-retentive with his lists and demands that you want to slap him. Joyce (Barbara Tarbuck) is so lonely following the death of her husband that she schemes and plots incessantly to secure her status in Jackie's household. Ben (Todd Lowe) is a drunk. Ted (Jeff Allin) is so desperate for love it hurts. Pam (Mary B. McCann) is nearly pathological when it comes to fearing her responsibilities. Yet, flawed as they are, they are a sympathetic, even believable, group. Starting over for these people may be impossible—the foundation laid by their pasts will forever affect their futures—but there's always pale ale and cupcakes.
The Beginning of August at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 7:45 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 2 & 7:45 p.m. $18-$45. Through May 28.