In truth, Three is not much of a play at all, but an anthology of “very special episodes” (possibly season finales) of an unproduced television or web series.
Three by Emily Kaye Lazzaro. Directed by A. Nora Long. Presented by Boston Public Works at The Boston Center for the Arts, Boston, MA, through June 20.
By Ian Thal
Boston Public Works’ raison d’être gives playwrights the opportunity to produce their own work. This means that while over time other theater companies develop a particular aesthetic identity, BPW’s aesthetics change with each play because each playwright serves as the artistic director for his or her own production, hiring the director, cast, and production crew. In an era when dramatists are frequently marginalized when it comes to the development and production of their own plays, self-production stands as a powerful alternative. It encourages control, ensuring that scripts will be staged as playwrights envision them, not changed to meet an institution’s desire to satisfy the demands of convention and marketability. Work that would not ordinarily be seen is given a chance to find an audience. (See my 2014 interview with four of BPW’s member playwrights.)
Unfortunately, BPW’s third production, Emily Kaye Lazzaro’s aptly-named, Three (it has three characters and three acts), comes off primarily as a vanity production, part of a strategy to pad out her curriculum vitae, which already includes her acting career and an attempt to present herself as an insightful spokesperson for the millennial generation, as in her essay ”Your 20s are supposed to be glorious. In reality, they are the worst” in The Washington Post.
Three opens in a NYU dorm on the morning before graduation. Roommates (and best friends) Sam (Tasia A. Jones) and Diane (Kelly Chick) have had a drunken first lesbian experience the previous night. (Yes, their names reference TV’s Cheers. But neither Lazzaro nor her characters make much of the allusion.) Diane wants to talk about it; Sam does not. Their third roommate, Jenni (Sarah Elizabeth Bedard), the most extroverted, sexually voracious, and hardest drinking of the trio, staggers in, bragging of her latest conquest, the deflowering of a freshman boy she met at a party. After more talk of booze and booty calls they are soon in their caps and gowns. Jenni makes a brief reference to a sociology course she took, but otherwise we never learn their majors.
In Act II the trio reunite for Sam’s bachelorette party pub crawl (no one else comes, because Sam has no other friends). They drink, they vent their petty disappointments with their mid-twenties, they insult one another, and they forgive one another, because they’re friends. Then to Act III where again they reunite years later, this time for a funeral. CHEAP PLOT DEVICE ALERT: the deceased hadn’t merited a mention in the previous acts so there’s no dramatic resonance to the death. Finally, Three ends with an earnest use of that old new wave chestnut, Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” – making cliché use of its associations with the 1985 John Hughes film, The Breakfast Club.
Every time the trio is together, the ever-tipsy Jenni says something inappropriate and Diane tries to pressure Sam to talk about their one-night-stand. It doesn’t matter how many years have passed or what the occasion is. Diane is less a “best friend forever” than a creepy obsessive who doesn’t respect personal boundaries. Worse, Sam and Jenni never develop the emotional intelligence to tell the difference.
As Diane, Chick goes through the play wincing in discomfort. A uncommented-upon anxious leg tremor helps to deepen her characterization, but she has nothing else to work with. During the course of Three‘s ninety minutes she never develops beyond the stereotype of “confused bisexual.” We are repeatedly told that Diane is an orphan, but never learn how old she was when her parents died, how they died, or who raised her. The trio-of-friends trope requires that one member be a cloud-cuckoo-lander, a role is filled by Jenni – if one accepts that drinking and casual sex counts as “cuckoo.” Thankfully, Bedard plays an entertainingly physical drunk, even when she is called upon to turn “mean.” Jones is trapped because Sam is a blank slate, a nondescript norm against whom her friends are measured. In Act II, when it is suggested that her nerdy fiancé isn’t her type, it is puzzling. We have been given no sense of what kind of “type’ she likes, aside from a male with a penis. (Lazzaro believes that it is still transgressive for women to chat about ‘dicks’ on stage.) The character is so amorphous it is difficult to figure out if Jones was cast “non-traditionally” — that is, a black person playing a character who could just as well be white. Or is it that Sam is a black person who only has white friends? If so, why is it that she never once hints at any of the experiences of race that even affluent, educated, African-Americans might share when speaking frankly with their closest friends?
In truth, Three is not much of a play at all, but an anthology of “very special episodes” (possibly season finales) of an unproduced television or web series. Many young playwrights seem to be going this route. It may be too soon to tell if this trend is good for television or the web, but it’s certainly not good for the stage, even though Lazzaro has a good ear for turning the vernacular of her generation into pseudo-naturalistic dialogue. Not surprisingly, in her interview with fellow BPW-playwright John Greiner-Ferris, three out of the four writers Lazzaro cites as influences are television writers. The irony is that she isn’t nearly as daring as her heroines: while Tina Fey and Amy Poehler (I am not familiar with the work of Mindy Kaling) aim to entertain, they never completely shy away from making political and social points (on key feminist issues, Poehler’s often goofy Lesley Knope is dependably articulate).
The millennial generation is graduating from college with massive student loan debts (which would-be spokesperson Lazzaro neither addresses in the play nor in her Washington Post essay). This crushing economic reality is neatly avoided in Three. Sam is successful enough to buy a house at 25 in the Connecticut suburbs and Jenni’s family pays her rent in the fashionably expensive Murray Hill neighborhood of Midtown Manhattan. Only Diane struggles with the more typical 20-something experience of living with roommates in Bushwick — a situation she resents. (Oh, the indignity of an NYU grad living in a Brooklyn neighborhood with significant Latino and Carribean immigrant communities and a vibrant art scene!) Otherwise, she has no financial problems. Even the generational references that identify this as a millennial play are cosmetic: Facebook, Netflix, and Lululemon get name-checked. Sam complains that that her mother doesn’t use texting properly (apparently mom hasn’t mastered the use of emoji.)
In both the conversation with Greiner-Ferris as well as a video interview on Boston Play Cafe’s YouTube Channel, Lazzaro makes an effort to label Three a feminist work, but she sets the bar pretty low – this is feminism as brand identity with little political or social commitment. Yes, the play is about three women and was written by a woman, but the three characters are passive. They never take an active role – they don’t even take a reactive role; life just happens to them. Maybe there are people who would be shocked to learn that there are women who enjoy both alcohol and penises, but I doubt they attend fringe theater productions. Moreover, I know of 20-something women in my immediate social circles who are quirkier, wittier, funnier, more socially aware, and who lead more interesting lives than the females in Three. Perhaps Gen-Xers and baby boomers will come away thinking that they have learned something about the millennial generation, but it is like going to an Olive Garden restaurant for authentic Italian cuisine. There are excellent contemporary plays written by women, featuring all-female, or mostly female, casts – I’ve reviewed some – but Three isn’t one of them.
There’s little evidence that dramaturg Ron Spalletta fulfilled the requirements of the job: helping the playwright discover the dramatic potential of his or her script over the course of the drafting process. Of course, even the advice of the best dramaturgs doesn’t amount for much if the dramatist or director thinks they know better. A capable director cannot save a script that has dangerously little going for it, so one can only hope that A. Nora Long’s next project will offer her a more congenial opportunity.
The one bright spot of this production is Shelley Barish’s set and prop design work. While the two chalkboard walls are under-utilized and the balloons and crêpe paper streamers that festoon the set are inexplicably orange and white (NYU’s school color is mayfair violet), this is a convincingly trashed-up dorm room: the three stools upon which our trio sit, a stack of used pizza boxes, a pile of laundry, and a heap of crushed beer cans and red solo cups. In the production’s only nod to theatricality, the trash follows the trio through the years. Somewhere, buried underneath the detritus of the lives of millennials, there’s a play.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. Two of his short plays appeared in theater festivals this past summer. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.