Disconnection is rarely as disarming as it is in U.S. Drag, Gina Gionfriddo’s sparkling little meditation on the pros and cons of big-city alienation. Well in keeping with the playwright’s other works that have so far been seen in New York, After Ashley and Becky Shaw, it plays on the idea that identity is a fluid, uncertain concept, equally open to exterior and interior manipulation. But rarely has Gionfriddo delivered a play of such sharply honed social incisiveness, one that alternately indicts and excuses our tendency to look for answers everywhere but the most obvious places.
If the Nunya Productions mounting of the show, which plays its final performance at the American Theatre of Actors Sargent Theatre tonight, is somewhat overemphatic in its declaration of Gionfriddo’s key principles, director Michole Biancosino and her hypereager cast can’t obscure the bewilderingly comic pain and desolation that give the work its unusually fierce bite.
At the play’s core is a septet of lonely-and-looking twentysomethings, all of whom are bruised or empty, emotionally or spiritually, but in different (and seldom complementary) ways. Angela and Allison, recent college grads, despise the concept and pay structure of “entry level,” and are determined to avoid it any cost. That might mean taking advantage of their awkward roommate, Ned, who’s floated them for months on the promise of parties and dates with their friends. Or Angela’s hitting on the perpetually haunted writer, Chris, she’s assigned to as part of her bookstore job, and whose latest novel is a searing (and questionable) account of his abuse-pocked upbringing. Or it might mean scoring free drinks by humoring a trust-fund baby named James, who’s obsessed with serial killers and is currently working with a man named Evan to track down a mysterious Manhattan serial attacker named “Ed.”
That the anti-Ed group is urging people to safeguard themselves from the victimizer, who pounces when others come to his aid, with the slogan “Don’t help” only further escorts everyone - including Mary, one of Ed’s most outspoken victims - into loneliness and isolation. Before long, it’s become obvious that no one wants companionship, or is capable of dealing with it. They’re too tied up in their own concerns - for Angela and Allison money, for Chris his own questionably tortured history, for James an excess of empathy, and so on - to realize the extent of the horrors their self-involvement creates for the others around them.
Gionfriddo’s complex layering of whos and whys doesn’t let up until the final scene, and she refuses to allow any answers to come easily - clearly, the first thing these people have to learn is that they can’t learn everything right now. And comedy is woven so tightly through every interaction that the play as a whole rapidly takes on the warm-rust patina of self-help satire so sure of itself that it won’t ever let even you entirely in on the joke.
This is where Biancosino and her cast stumble - too often they play things too light to let you believe each of these people is really at the threshold of drowning in shallow despair. Mariya King’s Angela and Katherine Horlitz’s Allison are sexy but colorless New York–style Valley girls, lacking the complete courage of their lack of convictions. Reid Andres’s Christopher doesn’t convincingly trade in the trendy agony he claims to inject in his writings, and seems too willing to fall for his own publicity. Matt Brown is an affable and energetic James, but doesn’t convey often enough the darkly deep feelings the character can’t keep from bubbling up. The hippy-virgin personality David Carl has concocted for Ned doesn’t fit him very well - Ned works on Wall Street, not in the East Village - but Michael Scott King and Laura King respectively hit the right activist and desperate notes as Evan and Mary; and Nicole Stoica brings a bit of sizzle to several supporting roles.
U.S. Drag premiered in a stageFARM production (which I did not see) in 2008, starring Logan Marshall-Green as Chris - his kind of hip, edgy, and urban unpredictability is exactly what all the characters need and what this production almost entirely misses. Instead, it takes everything at face value, which runs counter to Gionfriddo’s warning that doing so is more likely to lead to dissatisfaction and heartbreak than the real, difficult work of digging into others’ defining nuances. If Biancosino and her company stick fairly close to the surface, the play offers far richer opportunities for exploration than most on this subject, and is as powerful as it is funny in showing why keeping eternally to and for yourself is the surest way to bring out your own inner Ed.