Fame in the age of reality TV
Gionfriddo’s dark comedy ‘U.S. Drag’ tackles style as substance
CHELSEA — Two Vassar grads are ready to make it in the big city. Are they looking for love, success, fulfillment?
“Money,’’ says Angela (Hannah Cranton) to her friend Allison (Stephanie Friedman). “We need money.’’
Playwright Gina Gionfriddo, whose “Becky Shaw’’ and “After Ashley’’ both had recent Boston productions, takes a cliché and almost succeeds in shattering it with her smart and funny “U.S. Drag.’’ In the Apollinaire Theatre Company’s current production, this dark comedy is delivered with an unaffected sincerity that keeps the audience engaged even after Gionfriddo’s script starts to fall apart.
The title “U.S. Drag’’ refers to William Burroughs’s description of emotional malaise in “Naked Lunch,’’ and the play’s theme suggests a measure of Burroughs’s cynical search for self-knowledge. Confronted by dead-end jobs beneath Angela and Allison’s expectations, but worried they have no talent or skill set, the duo long to “do nothing, get money, and have people know who I am.’’ Together and separately, the pair try different strategies to achieve their goal: they make half-hearted attempts to hunt for a serial mugger named Ed so they can collect a $100,000 reward; Angela comforts a successful, self-absorbed author in exchange for cash; and Allison toys with being “a graceful runner-up,’’ attempting to play a Stepford wife to marry a wealthy do-gooder named James (Vladimir Noel).
Angela and Allison’s efforts to achieve their goal involve a series of interactions with men, including a roommate named Ned (Dain Geist) who rents to them with the understanding that they will host parties so he can meet women; Evan (a wonderful Gideon Bautista), a man who describes himself as a helper and spouts therapy-speak while leading a “community impact movement’’ called SAFE, which stands for Stay Away From Ed, and prints up posters that read “A Good Samaritan is a Dead Samaritan’’; Christopher (Sathya Sridharan), the writer who found fame by writing “creative nonfiction,’’ which reimagined his uneventful, privileged childhood as one marked by parental abuse; and James, the oh-so-earnest volunteer victim advocate.
Gionfriddo has a wonderful ear for dialogue, especially fast-paced comic banter, but as soon as she starts heading toward some truth that might give these characters a little complexity, she retreats to the safety of slick and superficial. By the time Angela is attacked by the mysterious Ed, and writes her own bestseller, a bit of creative nonfiction called “Cut Flower,’’ her plotline has become disjointed. Are we supposed to care about Angela and Allison’s quest for low-cost fame or question their inability to create meaningful relationships with men?
Director Danielle Fauteux Jacques understands the play’s veneer is paper thin and keeps the atmosphere light and the pace swift. She is also careful to keep her ensemble evenly balanced so that all of her actors deliver strong performances.
Too bad Gionfriddo doesn’t give Fauteux Jacques more to work with. In one scene, Allison has finally had enough of all the phony behavior, and says relationships are built on slowly getting somewhere between the “shine’’ on the surface and the “muck’’ below. That’s a journey that could lead Gionfriddo into more dangerous, but much more rewarding, material.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.