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Theatre in Review: Engagements (Second Stage Theatre Uptown)

Omar Maskati, Jennifer Kim, Ana Nogueira, Brooke Wiesman, Michael Stah-David. Photo: Joan Marcus.

How you feel about Lucy Teitler's barbed sex comedy will probably depend on what you think of Lauren, the play's beleaguered, self-destructive heroine. Lauren is at yet another engagement party among her social set, along with her best friend, Allison, and Allison's boyfriend, Mark. Speaking into the microphone that is available throughout the evening for the characters to express their private thoughts, she surveys Allison and Mark with a mixture of envy (regarding her) and scorn (for him). "I happen to know that he is the proven antidote to good conversation," she says, adding, "He's so mediocre, it's almost ostentatious." Her thoughts about Allison verge on romantic attachment: "All weather is kind to her hair. It can be pouring rain, a fucking deluge, umbrellas turning inside out, everyone running for cover, shoes soaked up to the laces, and there will still be that gorgeous shine to her hair, and she'll be the only one who doesn't notice it, because she's too beautiful to care."

This toxic brew of mixed emotions finds expression when Allison leaves Mark and Lauren alone for a few moments; after a very brief flirtation, their repair to a gazebo, where Lauren demands, "Fuck me the way you fuck her." Mark is more than happy to oblige; in fact, Lauren has no idea of the passions she has stirred up. Mark becomes utterly obsessed with her, and, to prove it, sends her a series of sex toys -- vibrators, crotchless panties, and Kegel beads (look it up). When Lauren tries to end it, he insists that he sees through her protestations: "A c---t is the window to the soul." By now, Allison and Mark are engaged: "I proposed to her so that I could see you at the engagement events," he tells Lauren. Meanwhile, Allison continues to rave about her fiancé. Explaining her certainty that Mark is her true love, she says, "People talk about how they met someone and just knew." The on-edge Lauren snaps, "People talk about seeing God in a piece of toast."

Clearly, Lauren is a hot mess masquerading as a human being, a professional life-wrecker who is stunned to discover in Mark her equal in the business of creating psychological mayhem. It's possible to imagine this as the basis for a black-hearted comedy -- the CW series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is based on a not-dissimilar premise -- but Engagements is little more than 90 minutes of snark posing as wit. Teitler's characters are figures to be moved around on a game board; she isn't interested in investigating the reasons for Lauren's essentially self-loathing nature, nor can she make a believable case that Lauren and Allison have long been best friends. In her utter blindness to the malice surrounding her, Lauren comes off as a well-heeled, well-dressed dumbbell. (The characters inhabit a tony Boston milieu in which champagne-fueled engagement parties are seemingly a weekly occurrence. Beth Goldenberg's costume design -- Brooks Brothers for Mark, chic understatement for the ladies -- is extremely evocative.)

Matters are not improved by the addition of Catherine, Lauren's cousin, and her boyfriend, Ryan, an unstylish pair who have, rather unbelievably, come to stay with Lauren. Ryan, a comp lit major, is an academic snob who considers Lauren's graduate study of Victorian literature to be the act of a dilettante. ("People who choose to study the work that made them love reading in the first place are not serious scholars," he sniffs.) But before long, he is obsessed with Lauren, stalking her at parties. "Maybe once I expose her she'll give up her illusions -- and give post-colonial theory another read," he muses, with the ardor of an unrequited swain. Really, Catherine and Ryan seemingly exist only to allow Teitler to reshuffle her characters into new pairings before the final curtain.

It's not easy to play characters as grating as these, but Jennifer Kim (Allison) and Michael Stahl-David (Mark) at least suggest that they would be right at home in a more successful high-style comedy; it's easy to imagine how well they would do if given genuinely amusing and perceptive things to say. As Lauren, Ana Nogueira is also technically skilled, but she can't get past her character's essentially irritating nature. The character of Ryan is little more than an attitude, but Omar Maskati shows some aptitude for farce, especially when slinking around the stage trying to look anonymous while spying on Lauren; as the frumpy Catherine, a dumbish blonde who takes off her glasses and suddenly blossoms around men, Brooke Weisman brings a very real charm to her clichéd role. The director, Kimberly Senior, manages to establish a hard, artificial style, but she can't supply the missing humor or character interest.

Wilson Chin's set, a pair of forced-perspective walls decorated with pastoral settings, neatly evokes the kind of country club where the play's many engagement parties take place; one of the walls jackknifes open to reveal Lauren's apartment, which, with its red velvet sofa and expensive-looking patterned wallpaper, seems awfully plush for a grad student, even one who comes from money. Jen Schriever inventively uses backlighting effects to create color chases for the between-scene dance interludes. Ryan Rumery's sound design provides a playlist of such party-hearty tunes as Beyoncé's "Crazy in Love," Earth, Wind & Fire's "September," and OutKasts "Hey Ya."

But a fair amount of talent is being put to extremely trivial use. Teitler brings Lauren to the brink of self-understanding but punts, arranging a finale that pretty much lets her off the hook, leaving her free to stir up more trouble. Engagements wants to be an acid-washed study of modern sexual manners, but it ends up being a reverse etiquette guide, a study in rudeness that quickly wears out its welcome. -- David Barbour

(10 August 2016)

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