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None of the Above

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Adam Green and Halley Feiffer.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Oh the risks one runs when trusting one's life to multiple choice. One answer, after all, is seldom sufficient, especially living life in pursuit of love and money (sometimes, even in that order). But praying to be handed essay questions is never a guarantee against having to compress knowledge into one of five reductive options - and God forbid one is the most negative, and negating, of them all.

Yet the four words identifying that option can also be deceptively delightful when they constitute the title of Jenny Lyn Bader's highly enjoyable comedy, now being presented at the Lion Theatre. None of the Above is a deceptively complex comedy, drawing from so many advanced areas of study that you'd swear everyone in it was already well past having to worry about the SAT and the pesky notion that it contains the future and those hundreds of fill-in-dots in equal measure.

No, Jamie (Halley Feiffer) and Clark (Adam Green), have college on the mind, but are far from done with it. First, they have to survive the lessons in economics, psychology, sociology, and even number theory that they inadvertently begin teaching each other when Jamie's father hires Clark to tutor her for the looming SAT. She's too creative a spirit to be contained by tests but needs to get into a good university, while led a group of soon-to-graduate seniors to a full round of perfect scores and is charged with helping Jamie reach that same goal. Since she's a child of privilege attending a rich kid's school and he's a graduate student struggling to erase the financial burden of his youthful indiscretions, their views about most subjects are greatly at odds - which creates the perfect environment for sparks to fly.

When I first encountered None of the Above four and a half years ago Off-Off-Broadway, it struck me as a pleasant-enough afternoon diversion with just enough weight behind it to keep it from floating away. But this production goes even farther to highlight the grit and the hopelessness in Jamie and Clark's lives, making it a more serious study of the expectations that our parents place on us and that we place on ourselves. (It's also been slightly updated to account for changes in actual SAT testing procedures.) The breezy quality of Julie Kramer's direction helps pay for the upkeep on the immediate plot question - will Jamie triumph over an army of fill-in dots armed with only a number-two pencil? - while keeping you on the same roller-coaster of young-adult uncertainty as Jamie and Clark.

That there's no way to determine the exact nature of the final outcome until it's reached is no small achievement for what is, at first blush, a fairly formulaic outing. And indeed, Bader isn't always successful in avoiding the cliches inherent in this specific subject matter; clues like "The obvious answer is never right" and "There are fake answers everywhere" are so obvious they might as well be set in neon across Lauren Helpern's swanky, electric-pink bedroom set. (Jamie's bedroom is the ultimate in Fifth Avenue adolescent chic.) None of the Above is not at its best when it's striving to be profound, and its reliance on symbolism (which becomes practically an addiction by late in the second act) is heavy-handed at its best.

But as long as None of the Above instead contents itself with letting Jamie and Clark discover each other and test the boundaries of their (often self-imposed) limitations, it remains a clever educational suspense story as written and acted. True, Feiffer isn't very convincing as a 17-year-old, and Green could turn down his nerdiness a couple of notches. But both share an attractively awkward chemistry that highlights the differences in their characters' backgrounds without ever completely condescending to the stereotypes that could greatly (and grossly) simplify telling the story of these two radically different souls.

No, for Bader, Kramer, Feiffer, and Green, there's more going on here than can be summed up by choosing A, B, C, D, or E. Not every answer can be easily intuited by context; deeper exploration is sometimes required. Since None of the Above drills this into you at so many turns, it ends up more compelling - and far funnier - than plays willing to settle for the 600 points they get just for signing their names.

None of the Above
Through November 25
Lion Theatre, Theatre Row Studios, 410 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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