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Theatre in Review: Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill (The Flea Theater)

Sarah Chalfie, Roland Lane. Photo: Hunter Canning

Joni, the heroine of Steph Del Rosso's new play, is worried that her body is filled with holes. Funny thing, the play she inhabits is loaded with holes, too, and, unlike Joni's, they aren't imaginary. Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill Fill -- this is the last time you'll see the full title in this review -- is a theatrical nervous breakdown/freakout/conniption fit; it pathologizes some fairly standard quarter-life anxieties, converting them into the broadest of cartoons. If there were an award for the most frantic play in town, this would be the winner, hands down.

Joni is the girlfriend of Noah, a pop star; one night, at the end of a performance, he brings her up onstage for what looks like a proposal. Instead, reminiscing about the night they ate Chinese food in bed and he saw her "naked and oblivious and dripping in sesame oil," he announces, "I need to erase a quadrant of my life." In other words, she's on the outs, being dumped live, onstage, in front of a cheering audience. In shock, Joni wanders about as a Greek chorus of friends and medical professionals bombard her with suggestions. Stunned to have been told by Noah that she was too dependent on him, to the point of not fully pursuing her career as a photographer, she bounces Candide-like from one bizarre encounter to another. (Noah typically referred to her as "my little photographer," a remark that should have set off alarm bells, but, apparently, didn't.) For a moment, it looks like Joni might be caught, on the rebound, by Todd, the waiter, but, as usual, she tries too hard: She pretends that, like him, she is an enormous fan of Joni Mitchell, a ruse that collapses when she can't name one of Mitchell's songs. Next, she signs up for a threesome with Lisa and Ray, a married couple who come with matching sets of fetish underwear. When that doesn't pan out -- Joni is unable to convincingly say "I am pretty" -- she ends up on a television game show, The Perfect Woman, which, I suppose, is meant to be a spoof of The Bachelor/Bachelorette franchise: She joins two other female contestants, dressed in formal gowns, who shout out lists of their accomplishments, while two men signal their approval or distaste with buzzers.

Even with a short running time of seventy-five minutes, Fill Fill Fill finds many ways to go wrong. The wildest satire requires a certain surface believability, and, right from the get-go, something is off about the play's premise. Sarah Chalfie, who plays Joni, is an extremely striking young woman, but she has been dressed by the costume designer, Kate Fry, in an unflattering tennis dress and hairstyle; Chalfie completes the look with poor posture and a panicked-animal stare. We're meant to see that Joni is a people-pleasing blank slate with no real identity of her own, but wouldn't a limelight-hogging star like Noah opt for a glossy piece of arm candy? Wouldn't Joni style herself as a bombshell to hold on to her man?

The adventures that follow are mostly unamusing, although I rather liked the precious items on the menu at Todd's restaurant ("massaged monkfish topped with pureed bone marrow and a bean paste reduction"). The failed tryst with Lisa and Ray is an especially tired sketch; it could almost have been lifted from the pages of a flop Broadway sex comedy of the 1960s. The sequence built around The Perfect Woman has a couple of sharp bits in which the male contestants describe their impossible female ideal ("She has the kind of beauty where she nudges me in the morning, you know, lightly, and I stretch, I reach for my glasses, and when I put them on and I look at her, all I see is: a sheen"). But like mostly everything in the play, it is too grossly overstated to be funny.

The biggest problem is Joni herself. It's never clear if we are meant to take her as a representative everywoman -- in which case, Del Rosso thinks we are living in the 1950s in terms of relations between the sexes -- or if Joni is meant to be an extreme case. In any case, she is little more than a vast reservoir of need, a black hole seeking the love of others without doing the hard work of defining herself. (That's the point of her delusion about her body being marked by holes, an idea that is stated but not developed.) We are left with little to do but wait, patiently, for her to wise up, which only happens when she runs into the younger version of herself.

Fill Fill Fill is not helped by Marina McClure's direction, which encourages mugging, but, as always with The Bats -- the resident company at the Flea -- there are some interesting new faces. Chalfie is stuck with an impossible character, but she has a natural stage presence and a way with a line; Roland Lane invests the role of Noah with plenty of electricity; and Monique St. Cyr demonstrates solid comic technique as a friend who indirectly assists Joni in getting her TV gig.

You-Shin Chen's set design is ultra-spare until we get to The Perfect Woman, which comes with an electric sign and a series of rain curtains. Reza Behjat's colorful lighting design is alternately subtle and glitzy, as needed. Ben Vigus' apt sound design includes popping flashbulbs, a murmuring bar crowd, and the song "You're Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile," from Annie. It's a little hard for me to believe that young millennial women have been reduced to desperate man-chasers, as depicted here, but if Del Rosso is ever going to make the point stick she'll need to summon more wit. Like its title, her play repeats itself without adding anything new. -- David Barbour

(13 February 2018)

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