Theresa Rebeck's Spike Heels, which opened last night at the New 42nd Street Theater, deals with a number of compelling issues, including the complex interplay of adult relationships, the intricacies of the English language, and the differences between perception and reality. It is, perhaps, the theme of good intentions gone awry that most permeates the play, though not always in the ways the author intended.
Andrew (Christopher Dippel) had nothing but the best of intentions when he began to work with his upstairs neighbor, Georgie. Andrew loaned her books, exposed her to culture, and taught her to think in ways her previously checkered past never encouraged. He even went so far as to secure her a job in his best friend Edward's law firm.
When Georgie meets up with Andrew one day after work, Andrew begins to understand that some of his choices may have had unintended consequences. In addition to being inadvertently responsible for a threat Edward made to Georgie, the attraction to Georgie Andrew shares with Edward is destroying his relationship with his fiancee. When Andrew attempts to take control of the situation, things begin to spiral further out of his control.
It is also at this point - approximately near the halfway point of the first act - that the play itself derails. When Edward (Jason O'Connell) arrives, the play, which until this point had seemed to be about the complex nature of Georgie and Andrew's relationship, becomes more about Georgie and the way she copes (or fails to cope) with the world around her. This exploration constitutes the balance of the play and, unfortunately, is considerably less interesting than the show's first half hour.
As Georgie, Deborah Engle gives a valiant performance, but is ultimately unable to make her struggles believable. Her exaggerated speech tones and flamboyant movements suggest more of a spoiled college student than the hardened, sexy, reformed street youth the script intends her to be. As a result, a number of lines - intended, apparently, to establish the reasons Andrew and Edward find her so attractive - generally fall flat.
Neither of the men do much to assist Engle in creating these relationships. O'Connell seems perfectly at home with the smarmy aspects of Edward's character, but is less effective in his more reflective moments. Dippel's sense of innocence frequently makes him intriguing, but he always reads quite a bit younger than his character's intended age. Neither, however, is able to convincingly portray the source of their friendship with each other or their attraction for Georgie. Though the play suggests a more significant reason beyond her physical attributes, it seldom appears onstage. As most of the play hinges on this attraction, this is a significant detriment.
Claire Engel gives perhaps the evening's best performance as Andrew's suffering fiancee, Lydia. Cold, calculating, and yet understandably emotional, she seems to have more at stake than the other characters, and her scenes are the most interesting to watch. As with Georgie, however, the emotional details of her relationships with both the men never completely come through.
Unfortunately, that is true of much in the play. It is obvious from the play's straightforward nature that Ms. Rebeck felt she had something important to say about relationships, but her attempt to show how the lessons of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion apply to the modern day is not entirely successful. Rebeck's script, while vaguely interesting on the surface, never manages to make absolutely clear all the issues it wants to deal with. It essentially brushes aside one character's threat of rape and Edward and Andrew's possession of Georgie.
Jean Dobie Giebel's direction is adequate, but never able to completely reign in the performances or drive the scripts points, such as they are, home. Too often, the characters are standing around yelling at each other, without their real anger or emotions being effectively conveyed.
Giebel's cast seems to do the best they can with the script under the circumstances, but more creative direction and further exploration of the characters' relationships might make Rebeck's intentions clearer. The script makes this difficult, but there are few other options available to make Spike Heels interesting and relevant, something Giebel's production all too seldom achieves.