Just what was going on, or not going on, in the U.S. senator's hotel room? And what was that woman doing in there? And who will make money knowing about all this?

In Zak Berkman's strong and absorbing play "The Harassment of Iris Malloy," a smooth world premiere by People's Light in Malvern, the answers to these questions form the arc of the story. This play is rich; other questions and answers percolate beneath the storyline – about gender, class and American values. And about money, always money.

The Iris Malloy of the play's title is a very real character in today's America. She's a single mom raising two boys, barely getting by on the money she makes from her job as a hotel waitress, and dependent on her sister to fill in the gaps when work gets in the way of looking after her kids.

One night, she's waiting tables at a dinner for a U.S. senator who's about to throw his hat in the ring for president – at least according to the gossip columns. He's having a fundraiser, giving one of his stump speeches. As he looks over the audience, he sees Iris Malloy. She's stopped in her tracks. She's paying attention to him. He's intrigued. He has his aide invite her to his room in the hotel. And what begins as an innocent evening ends up changing both their worlds.

It's a cool plot and an honest one, too. As it unfolded, I sat there thinking how any part of it could happen, how none of it is far-fetched. Berkman, the producing director of People's Light, writes the kind of natural dialogue that you might hear every day -- a big plus for this play, and for plays in general. Even toward the end, as the play takes on a somewhat different tone, it's credible because Berkman has worked diligently to set it up.

The production, directed by Lisa Rothe, is seamless, built on solid character development. If there is a profile of single motherhood with all its challenges, Julianna Zinkel gives it voice, literally -- you hear the fear of tomorrow just by listening to her speak. Scott Bryce, who's made much of his career in supporting television roles, is the complicated senator (of indeterminate party affiliation, if that matters.) He's been through hell himself: a prisoner of war, then an estranged husband, now a man who's turned all his troubles into triumphs with a book about being strong and moving on. Bryce gives him just the right balance. Every time you think the character knows exactly what he's doing, Bryce has a way of indicating that he might just be clueless or at least unsure of himself.

Pete Pryor, People's Light's associate artistic director, plays the senator's aide as an unsavory but media-savvy guy who's out to exploit, well, everyone. And company member Teri Lamm is excellent as Iris' put-upon and loving sister. (The playwright is Lamm's husband, for the record.)

"The Harassment of Iris Malloy" is being marketed as a "suspenseful and sexy political drama" by People's Light -- a description that doesn't really do the play justice and may be misleading. It is a political drama, in an odd way, and although it has suspense it's not a thriller. If there's a sexy element to the play, it escapes me. More to the point, it's a solid drama about the high stakes in American public life, for those who are on the A-list and those who suddenly find themselves thrust there.

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"The Harassment of Iris Malloy" is extended through July 17 at People's Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. 610-644-3500 or www.peopleslight.org.

West Side Story
Director Dennis Razze's soaring production of "West Side Story" that opened the Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival over the weekend makes the point undeniably -- and sadly -- that Jets and Sharks are lasting metaphors for ethnic hatred and its revolting results. It seems particularly germane right now. But messages aside, it's also gorgeous theater.

Stephen Sondheim's lyrics are as clever and radiant as the text in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," from which the musical is taken. Leonard Bernstein's music is by now iconic and Arthur Laurents' book for the show, swift and powerful. Stephen Casey has masterfully recreated the original Jerome Robbins choreography, and the cast pulls it off with panache. The production is well worth the ride to the festival's home at DeSales University, a few minutes north of Quakertown. The show runs through July 3. (610-282-9455 or www.pashakespeare.org.)