Adolescence is a special time, when boys and girls become men and women, and the inherent fantasy experience of childhood meets the brutal reality of adulthood. Less Than Rent (the name makes me think of Bret Easton Ellis’s novel Less Than Zero and the musical Rent) theater company’s production of Words, Razors, and the Wounded Heart at Under St. Mark’s Theater offers the connoisseur of teen angst a stage full of beautiful, young, white kids at the center of an adolescent vortex, gyrating to popular music, addicted to sex, drugs, and drama.
The lights go up on Ryan (RJ Vaillancourt) and Jenni (Amanda Brooklyn), two young lovers sitting on a rock somewhere in Colorado, blowing a J. He tells her he has to return to Connecticut, the land of his nativity: his brother Brandon (Cory Asinofsky) needs his support in taking care of their cancer-sick mother. Though they just met, she offers to tag along, and they spend an enjoyable week making the trek across country, trading witty conversation and carefree fantasies about how wonderful and free life can be. From the very beginning, James Presson (the playwright and a Connecticut native) uses this framing device to signal that we are in a world of white, upper-middle class, Jack Kerouac inspired teenage fantasy, a theme that ultimately becomes the moral of the play.
Once back in Connecticut, Ryan reconnects with his old friends and haunts, wherein suburban white kids talk like two-dimensional simulacra of black media stars, giant houses float in harlequin green seas of perfectly manicured grass, and the sick smell of desperation hangs in the seams of everyone’s Abercrombie or Juicy Couture outfits. Ryan is typical of the folks a year or so older than Brandon: he didn’t go to college after high school, and like them he’s living off his parents’ money, supplemented occasionally by low wage work in the service sector. Though his younger brother is in his first year at community college, he still hangs out with the high school seniors who were his crew back in the day.
Among Brandon’s friends are Joseph (Sean Patrick Monahan) and his sister Ashley (Emma Barash), who is dating Danny (Ben Disernes) the Big Man Around Town. Danny is a bad, bad boy, the source of much heartache in Greenport, CT. He has Ashley under his spell — and Sydney (Jackie Hansen) — and Aaron (Dean Acree). Danny is clearly a sociopath who has an identity tailored for everyone he knows, identities he uses to get sex and drugs from his witless victims. The subplots are many: Nick (Patrick Dooley) is secretly a cutter; Greg (Tom Sanchez), Sydney’s brother, wants to kill Danny for being the local bully; and siblings Ashley and Joseph are having a secret affair. A young woman said to her friend as we were leaving the theater, “that was, like, a soap opera.” Indeed. The plot has more twists than a pretzel factory.
In truth, WR&WH is about thirty minutes too long (it clocks in at 2.5 hours), and the implausibility of the story turns tragedy to bathos when corpses literally start piling up on stage. But to be fair, Mr. Presson isn’t going for the thrumming low-voltage intensity, mumble-core realism of plays like Belleville. The subtitle of the play “A Revenge Comedy” should alert us that WR&WH traces its genealogy to Elizabethan and Jacobean revenge tragedies like Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and Ford’s T’is Pity She’s A Whore. (The latter is certainly the source of the Ashley-Joseph love plot.) Like the playwrights he emulates, Mr. Presson is passionate about the poetry spoken by his characters. The dialogue is not only almost anthropologically precise in its realism, it transcends the “realism” of mumble-core by allowing its speakers to sing in a dialect that is clearly their own and simultaneously clearly artificial. It doesn’t hurt the production that the actors are all young, beautiful, and tragically energetic. You might want to see the show just to marvel at how pretty and sexy fatal ignorance can be.
The contours of the story are more mythical than realistic. The token black character is both the object of general abuse by the white characters and also Danny, the villain’s, muscle. Much of the blood shed is on Aaron’s hands (is his name a reference to Aaron the Moor in Titus Andronicus?), and it’s useless to wonder why, after committing so many murders, being the only black kid in town, and being secretly gay, he isn’t ever questioned by the police. But then again, there are no adults in Greenport, CT. A legendary place (the name strikes me as a conflation of Bridgeport and Greenwich), Greenport is the Great American High School movie fantasy — part Porky’s, part Lord of the Flies. If the over-the-top, soap opera worthy passions unleashed on the stage seem unreal, it is only because they are hyperreal. Those of us who made the great reverse migration to the cities know cousins and friends back in the provinces who suffer the same problems as Mr Presson’s characters: addictions of all sorts, existential ennui, and a faded American dream. The difference is, in real life tragedy isn’t glamorous.
True to English Renaissance tragedy, the myriad twists, turns and outrages all lead to the prom and its aftermath, when bodies start littering the stage. The narrative frame is closed when Ryan returns to the rock in Colorado where he met Jenni to start a new life. This is, I suppose, the comedic aspect of the play, though in fact this is a typical throwback to the Jack Kerouac fantasy of all suburbanites east of the Mississippi — to escape “out West” where everything is new and history is just a word. Unfortunately, the mythical West of the 1950s is deader than fried chicken. And so, Ryan’s ray of hope reads more like pathetic sentimentality (or an all-too easy way to end the play) than a genuine happy ending. Still, there is a lot of craft and energy in Words, Razors, and the Wounded Heart. More importantly, Tragic beauty and callow youth never go out of style.
Until April 27th at Under St. Mark’s Theater