Sad sack Judith is a stay-at-home housewife with an abusive husband. 

Katie C. is an overbearing rage-aholic. 

Heather is a single mother with a very sick daughter. 

All three women are struggling. All three are lonely to one degree or another, could use some good luck, good friends, more money. 

And, in Los Angeles playwright Lauren Smerkanich’s “The Dignity Circle”—the 71st world premiere by Berkeley’s small and intrepid Central Works—charismatic Angela seems to be the one and only person to solve everyone’s problems.  

She’s buoyant, warm, upbeat, has a happy marriage, and runs a Ponzi scheme disguised as a feminist women’s group that she guarantees will ultimately make them rich enough to realize all their dreams. No spoilers here; it’s clear (to us, the audience) from the beginning what her operation is all about.  

The group members must tithe—throw money, which Angela calls “devotions,” into the pot—and bring in new members (called “ladies-in-waiting”) as well. 

It’s also clear why the three vulnerable women are attracted to the group. Angela promises more than just financial reward. She’s canny enough to use all the tropes of feminism and new-age-speak to encourage trust, to urge self-actualization (through weekly self-empowerment sessions) and to promise fun: parties, pageants and fantasy games in which the members can be promoted from duchess to queen. 

In the case of anxious, low-self-esteem Judith, Angela forms what appears to be a strong, personal BFF type of bond. So we begin to see that Angela herself is needy, and has dark secrets. 

There’s a sense, as directed by Gary Graves, that the play wants to be a satire—all the actors (except Kimberly Ridgeway’s quiet, clear-headed Heather) are, to one degree or another, exaggerated: Rebecca Pingree’s over-excited Judith, her hair dyed an unnatural shade of red; Heather Kellogg Baumann’s too-shrill Katie C.; Adam Roy’s stiff performance as Judith’s abusive husband. Only Dov Hassan as Angela’s good-guy husband, and Sierra Marcks’s perky Angela herself, seem completely real. 

In conflict with the hints of satire, though, there’s a surreal element: The actors occasionally lift blank masks to cover their faces, presumably to hide, or perhaps to reveal, from a safe place, their deepest feelings. But the device feels inconsistent and ultimately confusing. 

Loneliness, low self-esteem, borderline poverty—all are ever-present, of course, in society; we’re all vulnerable, all struggling in one way or another. It’s the human condition, right? And many perfectly intelligent but desperate people fall for schemes like Angela’s, desperate enough to believe her encouraging mantra, “You can have anything you want,” and allow her to help them discover what it is they really do want, while giving her money, lots of it. 

But ultimately, despite its intriguing premise, the play’s varying tones and its not-quite-realistic directorial choices render Smerkanich’s characters one-dimensional. (And, acting aside, adding the two husbands, written to be cardboard characters, to the ensemble exacerbates the sense of one-dimensionality.)  

Sierra Marcks gives a realistic performance as a woman running a Ponzi scheme in Central Works’ premiere of Lauren Smerkanich’s The Dignity Circle.” (Courtesy Robbie Sweeny)

Only Angela, especially in Marcks’ careful portrayal, seems real. Yet as written she’s frustratingly opaque. 

The 90-minute play moves along swiftly as it heads toward its inevitable and well-earned conclusion and is entertaining all along the way. But, with its promising premise, it begs for further character development. 

Central Works’ “The Dignity Circle” has been extended through July 30 at Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $35-$40 at (510) 558-1381 or