New York — Pauline (Lauren Tom) and Faber (Stephen McHattie) are the focal figures in the congested human landscape of Len Jenkin's ``American Notes,'' at the Public/Susan Stein Shiva Theater. They occupy center stage among the assorted vignettes assembled for this cross-sectional view of an ethnically mixed American scene. The author has crowded a lot of action into a small space; the action strains the dimensions of John Arnone's clever setting: six compartments on two levels. To help pay her way through community college, Pauline night-clerks at the seedy little hotel in a town where ``somebody pushed the pause button ... in 1942.'' The hotel has provided the restlessly itinerant Faber with a temporary refuge. Their prolonged dialogue, interrupted by other incidents, is marked by Pauline's practical good sense and an uncloyed sweetness epitomized by her definition of happiness. Her unaffected simplicity proves more than a match for Faber's frequently preposterous gambits.
Mr. Jenkin completes his impressionistic canvas with an assortment of casuals: hopers, dreamers, lovers, and losers. A carnival Pitchman (Thomas Ikeda) extols the attractions of a gargantuan ``crocodopolus'' until it expires, leaving him forlorn. In an upstairs room of the hotel, Karen (Mercedes Ruehl) frets over the delayed return of her latest lover, a reporter (Andrew Davis) presently occupied with interviewing a professor of flying saucers (George Bartenieff).
Tim (Jesse Borrego) and Linda (Laura Innes) indulge occasionally in dancing that seems (considering its upper-stage elevation) as perilous as it is frantic. The town's Mayor (Rodney Scott Hudson) provides intermittent commentary, while the almost silent Chuckles (Olek Krupa) goes about handyman chores.
Such are the components of Jenkin's free-form observations on present-day America. Although the writing reflects influences ranging from William Saroyan to early Lanford Wilson, ``American Notes'' speaks with its own distinct and idiosyncratic voice. JoAnne Akalaitis has directed a performance which blends the realistic, the bizarre, and the fantastic as it responds to the varied tones, colors, and verbal riffs of the Jenkin script. This is never more so than when Miss Tom's extraordinarily appealing Pauline is proving a match for Mr. McHattie's volatile Faber. The lively production was costumed by David C. Woolard and lighted by Frances Aronson.