One thing that can't be said about Juvenilia is that its title is misleading. Those most likely to enjoy Wendy MacLeod's new play at Playwrights Horizons are those young enough to readily identify with the academic and romantic trials and tribulations of its college student characters; older audiences might find their enjoyment of the subject matter accompanied with a fair amount of frustration.
This is a bit unfortunate, as Juvenilia deals with subjects that should have more universal relevance: sex, alcohol, uncertainty about the future. Yet the play is not exactly far-ranging in its emotional or dramatic depictions of its characters; MacLeod presents just enough information to push her story from beginning to end, without introducing much extra color along the way. It often feels like a stage version of one of John Hughes's 1980s coming-of-age movies.
But while Hughes played games with character types, MacLeod embraces them more readily. The play, set in a private, liberal arts school called Jubilee College, involves socially conscious, vaguely nerdy, and sexually inexperienced philosophy major Henry (Ian Brennan); his roommate and best friend, the good-looking, hard-partying, and heavy-drinking Brodie (Luke MacFarlane); Brodie's girlfriend and constant thorn-in-the-side, the bitchy yet fragile Meredith (Aubrey Dollar); and Angie (Erica N. Tazel), the black girl and devoted Christian next door who sings in the school's gospel choir.
The story, which uses the stages in Brodie and Meredith's ever-evolving feuds to symbolize the transition from youth to maturity, is generally incidental and predictable. So are the characters' relationships, Juvenilia's primary course of study: Henry is secretly in love with both Meredith and Angie. Meredith is in love with both Brodie and Henry. Angie is secretly in love with Brodie. Meredith wants to coax Henry and Brodie into a threesome with Angie so she can watch... You see where this is going.
But while MacLeod often wants to push her characters into adulthood, the play works best when she lets them deal with things as college students, all deadly serious about things that, when observed by outsiders, sound pretty silly. All the characters speak with rock-solid emotional assuredness betraying their general inexperience, even when it means falling into platitudes; they refer to so much as "ironic," for example, one can only wonder if they know what the word actually means.
Juvenilia doesn't go for many laughs in these moments, but if it did, it would likely be even funnier; despite the serious tone interweaving throughout the play, it is primarily a comedy. At the performance I attended, the only audience members bursting out in more or less uncontrollable laughter were younger, mostly in their early 20s, and probably experiencing in their own lives many of the same things as the characters onstage. The rest of the audience was respectful and attentive, often laughing a bit, but seldom finding the same degree of humor in the proceedings.
Perhaps director David Petrarca has just done his job too well? He's given the play a clean, unfurnished collegiate appeal, both in mood and appearance, with the help of scenic designer Michael Yeargan, whose set presents two dorm rooms and the hallway connecting them as modern and institutional and as a doctor's waiting room (how appropriate). The show is well lit by Mark McCullough, and Martin Pakledinaz's costumes are fine.
As for the actors, they're all youthful and unseasoned; this gives their roles a fair amount of authenticity, if not always ideally serving the play. The characterizations have an unfinished quality about them makes it somewhat difficult to believe any of the characters as real people. Brennan seems to fit into his character best, finding rhythms and responses that are pretty much appropriate for Henry; Dollar seems uncomfortable and stuffy in her role from beginning to end, and doesn't make much of an impression. MacFarlane and Tazel give perfectly acceptable, if never stellar, performances.
One would think it would be easier for them, appearing not far removed from their characters' ages, but maybe not... Perhaps their own acting studies have removed them sufficiently enough from the world of the play that they, too, have a hard time really getting inside of it? Juvenilia is no timeless work; once you've gone through in your own life what its characters experience, you may find that MacLeod's jokes and revelations don't carry far beyond the walls of the theater.