Scientists of all stripes are urged to rush to West 55th Street, where an unusual phenomenon has centered itself on the Julia Miles Theatre. Though located several blocks away from the Gerswhin and the Circle in the Square, the Julia Miles has fallen victim to a spatial distortion that’s caused the new play it’s housing to be populated entirely with characters from those other theaters’ musicals. Could there be any other explanation for the harmless but disjointed show calling itself Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen?
No, Kathryn Walat’s gentle teen comedy, boasting a pompous, popular protagonist who’s not far removed from Wicked’s Glinda and a supporting cast of awkward adolescent males resembling the word freaks from The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, isn’t exactly rupturing with originality. But the caricatures roaming the stage as if they’re peripheral players in an angsty mid-1980s teen film comedy might not all be the playwright’s fault; it’s possible that director Loretta Greco has made the carefully considered into the cartoonish, turning a potentially sweet evening into one that leaves a bitter aftertaste.
Walat’s treatment of Longwood High School sophomore sweetheart Victoria (Jessi Campbell) is surprisingly sympathetic, avoiding the typical trap of making her a classist existing only to be deflated. From the beginning, the bubbly, blonde Victoria is merely a smart girl too consumed with teen life-living and life-changing (she’s got a varsity basketball-playing boyfriend and parents about to divorce) to apply herself to her studies. As she’s already interested in math (a byproduct of her close relationship with her computer scientist father), when she’s roped into rounding out the school’s math squad, she doesn’t have so far to fall, which promises a much more interesting trip.
There are several standards of the beauty-versus-the-geek genre that Walat doesn’t ignore, and those give the show a sense of familiarity its deceptively complex title character might not otherwise encourage. These include an unlikely romance or two, jealousy (from several different vantage points), and scandals that threaten to rip apart the bonds the group tentatively forms. When both the clichés and the improbabilities collide in the frantic first-act finale, these tired tropes seem to hold as much promise as the first day of high school, and send you sailing into intermission feeling an unexpected uncertainty for what the second act holds.
But not even the second half’s twists and turns, which lead Victoria and her teammates to realize what’s important in high-school life (cue “awws” from the audience), compensate for the pimply portrayals of Victoria’s cohorts. Greco has directed Zachary Booth, Adam Farabee, Tobias Segal, and Matthew Stadelmann to play variations of Nerd-with-a-capital-N, creating an adenoidal atmosphere in which you can almost smell the pocket protector plastic. As Greco has conceived things, there’s no question these misfits belong where they’ve ended up: behind calculators.
Yet that runs counter to Walat’s apparent contention that the stigma of being on the math team comes from the outside, not from within. Victoria learns this lesson the hard way, but it’s never reinforced in Greco’s been-there-done-that staging. Booth is the tall, quasi-attractive senior nerd who relates to Victoria most as a person, Farabee is the token fawning freshman; Stadelmann is the most bookishly insecure; and Segal’s the bookworm with a secret too big to tell even his best friend, but all in all these are young men who seldom truly exist outside certain underactive imaginations. (Amazingly, only two of the four wear glasses; credit costume designer Valerie Marcus Ramshur for that revolutionary choice.)
They certainly have no identifiable place inside Walat’s curiously aware work, which strives to strip away the artifice these performances reinforce. The actors are all game, especially the hoppingly hyperactive Farabee, but it’s not enough to make these poindexters into people we can care about. Campbell, however, is a sufficiently magnetic Victoria, bringing the right unthreatening sexiness and knowing innocence to a girl uncertain which of two worlds she prefers. Walat’s stuffs her full of eye-rolling pronouncements, such as pondering what it feels like when the infinite, irrational number pi ends, but Campbell makes each one both believable and wholesome.
Those are qualities one expects this show might possess under the right circumstances, but if Walat had more in mind than dueling fish-out-of-water stories, there’s little evidence of that here. Greco’s version is one you’ve probably seen before, and can see anywhere at any time - especially at Wicked or Spelling Bee. Those are two wildly imperfect shows, but they nonetheless possess a more rounded sense of identity than Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen.
Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen