Nora Woolley, playwright and performer of Hip, now playing at IRT.
Nora Woolley, playwright and performer of Hip, now playing at IRT Theater.
(© Sarah Rogers)

Adolescence has never looked uglier than in Hip and Darkling, two one-woman plays penned and performed by Nora Woolley and Kim Katzberg, respectively, now playing in succession at IRT Theater. I am not even referring to the greasy wigs, clingy costumes, and piles of other unflattering accessories that the two ladies' parades of characters throw on and off throughout the performances. While these quirky touches don't exactly make for a traditionally shiny aesthetic, it's the sloppy and disturbingly bleak portrait of youth that they jointly paint, rather, that inspires the all-too-frequent urge to avert your eyes.

Both directed by Raquel Cion, the two plays share a similar brand of dark humor that dangerously teeters between bluntness and gratuity. Woolley, writer and performer of Hip has managed to strike a finer balance in this respect than Katzberg. She has molded an incomplete yet promising 30-minute play about a young man, recently graduated from the illustrious New York University, who lives the life of a starving musician as he chases a pipe dream of rock-and-roll stardom. Woolley crosses barriers of gender, age, and ethnicity as she successively transforms from her central male character, Wythe, into his pill-popping grandmother from whom he borrows money; a sex-starved single mother who hires him to babysit her overactive son; and finally, a middle-aged Polish realtor who shows him an overpriced Brooklyn apartment. Though Woolley has dreamed up a collection of intriguing characters that contribute to Wythe's convoluted journey toward adulthood (and handily inhabits them all), she offers nothing to tie them together, creating something more akin to a Tracey Ullman variety show with a hint of adolescent angst than a fully realized play.

Katzberg, however, compensates for her colleague's abruptness and then some. Her plodding solo (with the occasional cameo by Maia Cruz Palileo in various roles) runs over an hour in length, though predictability certainly isn't the culprit for its sluggish pace. Darkling traces the misadventures of a thirteen-year-old girl named Trinity — unfortunate in both looks and personality — who stumbles and "trips" through the 1980s, making increasingly bizarre and self-destructive pit stops after a particularly inauspicious first foray into sexual activity. Katzberg takes a number of admirable risks (including a rather explicit reenactment of the horrific sexual encounter that I'm sure elicited some knowing cringes from the women in the audience), though few of these risks result in any kind of artistic reward. More often than not we find ourselves following her on an erratic journey that never truly takes shape.

Katzberg blends her performance with a collection of homemade videos that allow her to share the stage with some of her other characters. The most frequent visitor to the screen is Trinity's Bohemian chain-smoking sister who sends Trinity postcards from the road after running away from boarding school (though Katzberg oddly chooses to perform one scene between the siblings a la Jekyll & Hyde). These rough-cut selfies fit Katzberg's performance style and even contribute a few laugh-out-loud moments. As the play trudges forward, however, the videos, like the rest of the show, becomes increasingly grating like a Saturday Night Live skit taken too far. What initially feels organic and unselfconscious ultimately resembles a slapdash school project that, like an inside joke, only resonates among the close group of friends who bonded and guffawed through the creative process. Unfortunately, Katzberg finds herself alone onstage with no one else in on the punch line.