The doughnuts are running low at the Dunkin’ in “Jennifer Who Is Leaving,” now making its world premiere at Round House Theatre. No matter: You’ll get a sugar high just from the acting talent in this hilarious and meaningful play written and directed by Morgan Gould.
Helping out is Paige Hathaway’s terrific Dunkin’ set, which is so detailed you can even glimpse what look like labor law posters when the door to the employee area swings open. It’s at this Massachusetts spot that you can find Nan (Robinette), a night-shift employee who is a whirlwind of activity — mopping, cleaning the plate-glass door, making up takeaway cartons, preparing breakfast wraps and manhandling paper towels. (Sound designer Justin Schmitz’s in-store pop tunes, and the props coordinated by Andrea “Dre” Moore, add to the realism.)
When Nan slows down, it’s usually to take phone calls from her clueless husband, Chuck. In the calls — among the play’s funniest sequences — her voice ranges through degrees of long suffering, exasperation and flirtatiousness as she gives Chuck instructions on, for instance, where to look for his car keys, how to warm up a casserole, how to use plastic wrap, and how and when to give the dog a pill.
Nan finds a kindred soul in Jennifer (Gilbert), a bone-weary nurse’s aide who’s at the Dunkin’ waiting for a tow truck, in the company of her cantankerous elderly patient Joey (King). Like Nan, Jennifer has a burdensome husband, and a comparison of their spouses’ flaws sends the women into hysterical laughter — until it doesn’t. An adjacent fertile topic: the Sisyphean demands of housework.
Chuck, Nan reflects, “sleeps the gentle sleep of a person who has never cleaned out the fridge or Easy-Off’d the oven.”
For both Jennifer and Nan, economic insecurity exacerbates the problems of overwork and unequal domestic labor. Gould (Studio Theatre’s “I Wanna F—ing Tear You Apart”) clarifies this point with a more privileged character: the inconsiderate teenager Lili (Annie Fang, nicely sulky), who aims to attend Oberlin.
The play’s socioeconomic themes and apt — if not exactly subtle — perspective on women’s domestic burdens entwine with the often superb comedy. In his more uproarious moments as Joey, King makes hay with doughnut consumption: Joey doesn’t so much eat a doughnut as nibble and gum it, lick its glaze, scatter its crumbs and revolve it stickily as if hoping the taste will be better on the other side.
His snacking habits, needless to say, make a mess — which the women clean up.
Jennifer Who Is Leaving, written and directed by Morgan Gould; costume design, Ivania Stack; lighting, Emma Deane. About 90 minutes. Part of the National Capital New Play Festival. Through May 7 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.