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Theatre in Review: The Net Will Appear/Bitter Greens (59E59)

Top: Eve Johnson, Richard Masur. Photo: Jody Christopherson. Bottom: Clea DuCrane, Andy Do. Photo: Brendan Swift.

While The Hello Girls continues to connect audiences with a vital piece of American history, the other two venues at 59E59 are presenting distinctly odd takes on human behavior. The characters in The Net Will Appearand Bitter Greens behave not as recognizable humans do; rather they are bound to the whims of their respective playwrights, each of whom has her axe to grind.

In The Net Will Appear, staged in Theater B, Bernard, a rather grizzled fellow of a certain age, steps through a second-floor window onto his roof, carrying a lawn chair and bottle of Jim Beam, ready to enjoy the afternoon sun. However, at the house next door, Rory, a nine-year-old girl, steps out onto her roof, ready to make conversation, even if it kills them both. She natters on about her cat (named Dr. Phil), who is in need of stimulation. She announces, "I'm going to be a choreographer, a dolphin trainer, and a detective when I grow up." Despite the fact that she is Jewish, she attends Catholic school: "This Jesus guy is really throwing me for a loop," she notes. She also believes that she is going to be arrested at any moment, having torn off the "do not remove" tag from her bedroom pillow. She allows that she had been worried about her hamster, whose name is Jimmy Fallon, because of the big bump that she feared was cancer. But, she adds, brightly, "Those were his testicles descending." She shares with Bernard the fact that Dalmatians have spots "even on their buttholes." Every so often, she reaches into her bedroom window, bending over, pretty much revealing all, to Bernard's horror. And, occasionally, when contradicted, she lets out a high-pitched scream that probably could be heard on 125th Street.

In short, Rory is a perfect little horror who would probably benefit from being sent to bed without her supper -- for, say, six or seven weeks running. This is nothing against Eve Johnson, the young actress who plays her; she rattles off her lines with aplomb and changes up emotions with enough fluency to strike terror in the heart of any adult co-star. But Rory is patched together from bits of old sitcoms, with a splash of J. D. Salinger's Esmé thrown in for good measure; she is a figure of such ghastly adorableness and precocity that she makes Shirley Temple look like a gangster's moll.

This is a big problem, since the entire action of The Net Will Appear hinges on her growing relationship with Bernard, who, instead of calling Child Protective Services, gradually allows himself to be taken in by her supposed charms. This is one of those opposites-attract two-handers in which two people meet and instantly irritate each other, then gradually open up and form an unshakeable bond. Since this is the only possible plot trajectory, suspense is impossible; one's enjoyment hinges on becoming engaged with the characters, a tall order under the circumstances. As per usual with these plays, the coming-together is facilitated by the characters sharing their sorrows: Bernard is struggling to care for his wife, who suffers from dementia; he is also haunted by the memory of his long-dead daughter. Rory's family life is a hot mess, informed by the three Ds -- drink, divorce, and depression; in addition, she is bullied at school.

If Erin Mallon's script is both predictable and cloying, the rest of the production is thoroughly professional -- even Mark Cirnigliaro's direction, which at least keeps things moving at a decent clip. Richard Masur is always a pleasure to have around, and his Santa Claus-meets-Jerry Garcia look -- facilitated by costume designer Peter Fogel -- is most appropriate for the character. Based on her ability to shoulder such an enormous role, I predict that little Miss Johnson has quite a career ahead of her. Matthew J. Fick's scenery, Justin A. Partier and Jenn Burkhardt's lighting, and Sean Hagerty's original music and sound design are all well done. But The Net Will Appear presents the spectacle of two actors performing without a net, and the whole thing comes crashing down in record time.

Meanwhile, in Theater C, in what I regard as the comeback of the season, the poisoned kale smoothie has returned! The hootiest plot development in the entire first season of the late television serial Smash -- and that's saying something -- has been resurrected for Clea DeCrane's unintentionally hilarious soap opera about the career woes of twentysomethings. (In case you missed that magisterial exercise in high camp known as Smash, Uma Thurman played a Hollywood star who, in order to get out of starring in a musical about Marilyn Monroe, plotted to have herself served a smoothie laced with peanuts, to which she was allergic. Can you see why I never thought this idea would come around again?)

Anyway, DeCrane focuses on a tight circle of college friends making their way into the real world. Lily has gone into business for herself, launching a line of healthy flavored drinks -- they sound like virgin craft cocktails -- under the trade name Tonic. Caitlin, a painter, is admitted to a group show and, despite her considerable doubts, appears ready to make a splash. Then there's Reyna, the group's queen bee, a frantic overachiever who has just returned from an internship in Tokyo and is waiting to be hired by some kind of environmental think tank/information service known as Green Communications -- a gig that, to her, represents the pinnacle of achievement.

Reyna's world begins to unravel when she gets passed up for the Green Communications job in favor of her handsome, passive boyfriend, Andrew, who, unbeknownst to her, also applied. (He admits to having been sneaky about it, although he insists that he did it so they could work together. In any case, didn't either of them have to submit to an interview?) Andrew offers to pass up the job, but, in Reyna's sole magnanimous gesture, she insists that he take it. Suddenly, she is the only one in her crowd without a glittering prospect.

You might think that a Type A personality like Reyna would have alternate plans on tap, or she might churn out a slew of résumés and instantly pick up another position. Instead, she barricades herself in her apartment, refuses to tell the truth to her parents, ignores her friends' text messages, slugs white wine straight from the bottle, and starts boffing the delivery guy from Trader Joe's. And each morning she sends Andrew off to work with a kale smoothie spiked with enough Vitamin D tablets to induce kidney failure. Soon, Andrew has stomach troubles, leading to a mortifying episode in which he throws up on his boss. Really, Hedda Gabler could take notes from Reyna.

As the situation degenerates, DeCrane contrives to throw all the characters -- including that delivery boy -- together for a celebration that turns into an exchange of bitter truths and self-important arias. Even so, everyone is so busy making sententious speeches that Andrew is forced to get up off the floor and announce, "I'm sorry, has everyone just moved past the fact that I've been poisoned?" Lily responds, "Okay, I don't like this at all. This is not a safe space." Actually, it's not that bad, as long as you lay off the smoothies.

A drama about the living hell of being a Berkeley grad without brilliant prospects, Bitter Greens was never going to speak to large segments of the audience. But DeCrane's contrived plotting and risible dialogue are likely to reduce the target audience even further. If Kevin Kittle's direction can't find the right tone for these dramatics, it may be because there isn't one. DeCrane herself plays Reyna, and is a better actress than playwright; otherwise, the best performance comes from Ben Lorenz as the guy from Trader Joe's, who delivers more than stuffed peppers, if you know what I mean.

The rest of the production is passable, including Cate McCrea's simple apartment set, Maximo Grano De Oro's lighting, and Keith Lalley's original music and sound design. Christianne Bakewell's costumes are rather better, providing clothing that tells you something about each character. Bitter Greens certainly shows initiative on the part of DeCrane. Now that she has gotten this exercise in post-college traumatic stress disorder past her, her next piece will surely be more interesting. In the meantime, I can't recommend The Hello Girls highly enough. -- David Barbour

(17 December 2018)

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