The Ugly American
Through June 26.
Mike Daisey's newest monologue is a mostly lighthearted scrapbook narrative-the classic story of an American abroad, with a soft parody of college theater on the side. By the end of the evening, though, the bumbling thespian routine has split open, revealing a much darker, more interesting core of violence and jealousy.
The story starts as Daisey jets off to London for a study-abroad program in theater, but soon he's spending a lot of time south of the Thames in an experimental Marxist-feminist production of Caryl Churchill's Vinegar Tom in an abandoned church. Both storylines verge on the cartoonish at times, though the gloomy remnants of Matthew Smucker's Gothic Bach at Leipzig set in the background are a lovely imaginative springboard to the squatter's church. The jokes are plentiful, but hardly uproarious (unless you, too, were a theater geek in high school). Certain habits of Daisey's, like repeating an opening line louder, as though he were summoning a bigger audience for a great anecdote at a noisy party, get mildly annoying.
But the end is glorious. In Vinegar Tom rehearsals, the young Daisey has been obsessively rehearsing a rape scene with a girl named Tamzin. The scene is always partially improvised (the director doesn't believe in blocking), so Daisey must actually catch Tamzin and pin her to the floor as she struggles to escape. When the two actors begin an inevitable offstage liaison, a halo of violence clings to their sex life. And if this blurring of the lines frightens the young student, it terrified ACT's opening night audience. Meanwhile, north of the river, Daisey must wrap up the study abroad program by playing a goofy lead in a goofy play. The contrast is grotesquely hilarious. The streak of horror in the other narrative had, by this point in the play, shocked the audience into pliancy, making us hungry for the cruel edges of satire. ANNIE WAGNER
Empty Space Theatre
Through June 26.
As anyone who's ever wandered through the maudlin universe of livejournal.com can attest, teenagers rule. They're self-absorbed and grandiose and ridiculous and endlessly entertaining. You might think you hate teenagers, but by the end of Stupid Kids you will luv them 4-eva. Pinkie-swear. Even the white-haired granny next to us, who slumbered peacefully-and snored audibly-through all but the first 10 minutes, awoke to lead the standing ovation at the end. It was just that good.
A lovingly crafted ode to 1980s teen-dom, Stupid Kids brings that world of awkwardness and self-conscious bravado to triumphant life. There's not much of a story (just a pair of flimsy, interlocking love triangles), but it serves its purpose: creating a framework for an extensive catalogue of nostalgic '80s minutiae. The kids-two are popular and straight, two are not-write poetry ("I am a lone, loner, lonely, alone. Inside myself."), spout SAT words like they're going out of style, and break it down to totally awesome live jams. Stupid Kids is nothing new, nothing monumental, but it's probably the only place in town where you can drink $1 PBR and watch a squirmy high-schooler shout, "You sound like an empath on Star Trek!"
Overhead projectors and bad poetry aside, though, what really makes Stupid Kids worth watching is its sincerity. Sure, the characters are basically cardboard cutouts; they are silly, but they are not absurd. These stupid kids remind us of ourselves before irony crept in, of the idealism that gets lost somewhere between high school and unemployment.
Plus, if you cross them, they'll like totally lacerate your face. LINDY WEST
Jungle: A Hobo Play
Through June 25.
One gets the sense that playwright and co-director Tim Barr has brushed up against the hobo universe, but he has failed to translate the experience for the stage. Jungle follows four star-crossed bums as they ride the rails and reunite in a hobo camp (or jungle). H lost a fortune in the stock market (and has some unexplained issues with his wife), Billy is a thug, Handbag Betty has secret family money and an inexplicably large sexual appetite, and Knuckles (the only believable hobo onstage) is an old railroad sage. The conceit is interesting, but the play is overwrought and takes itself too seriously. The writing is awkward, there's too much chatter that doesn't help us understand anything, and the characters and action are confusing. Why is a poor little rich girl riding the rails? Why is she so horny? What was Knuckles doing with that buried bundle of money? Why does everyone look so clean?
For all its shortcomings, this play has a seed of potential. Jungle could be really good with a few subplots, more nuanced characters, less actorly actors, and heavy rewriting. Even better: Stage it outdoors with the audience sitting on logs around a fire. Get extras to snore and wander in the shadows. Featured actors should be greasy and mumble, howl, and fight like they mean it. Jungle could be revolutionary-if it wasn't a play. BRENDAN KILEY