Wrenn Schmidt and Natalia Payne in Jailbait
(© Carol Rosegg)
Wrenn Schmidt and Natalia Payne in Jailbait
(© Carol Rosegg)
The possibility of statutory rape may not seem like the most appropriate subject to laugh about, but Deirdre O'Connor's Jailbait -- the first production in the Cherry Lane Theatre's new Cherry Pit space on Bank Street -- is full of humor. However, this bold and dynamic new play is also filled to the brim with genuine emotion and a complex treatment of a controversial subject.

Jailbait is a coming-of-age tale that follows two underage girls, Claire (Natalia Payne) and Emmy (Wrenn Schmidt), who sneak into a nightclub. They're looking for a bit of fun, and Emmy at least may be interested in something more. She's been to the club previously, and met Mark (Peter O'Connor), a man in his mid-30s trying to hold onto his youth. On the fateful night the play takes place, Mark has brought along his friend Robert (Kelly AuCoin), who's recently gone through a bad break-up.

Neither Claire nor Robert seems properly prepared for anything to really happen, which is perhaps why they hit it off so well. Along with the surface lies that Claire is telling (beginning with her age), she's also able to share some truths -- particularly about her recently deceased father, whom she misses. O'Connor's writing is character-driven, and director Suzanne Agins strikes a nice balance between playing up the comic moments and giving weight to the more thoughtful and dramatic scenes.

Payne is convincing as a young teenager trying to look and act older than she really is, but the actress also demonstrates an underlying vulnerability that is exposed at crucial moments within the play to devastating effect. She has great chemistry with AuCoin, and their scenes together are the production's most compelling. AuCoin, for his part, also shows his vulnerable side, and gives Robert the demeanor of a genuinely nice guy so that you sympathize with him, even as things start to escalate into dicey behavior between a 30-something man and a 15-year-old girl. O'Connor's Mark is appropriately jerk-like when called for, and yet you still get the feeling that he really does actually care about his friend, and that maybe there is something beneath the shallow surface he projects. On the downside, Schmidt pushes too hard, overplaying both text and subtext. However, she does achieve a touching emotional connection to her character's insecurities in the play's final scene.

Costume designer Rebecca Bernstein has done a great job with character-revealing clothing for each cast member -- particularly the girls' clubbing outfits, which are markedly different from what they wear in the opening scene, set in Claire's bedroom. Kina Park's scenic design is deceptively simple, with furniture and other set pieces emerging from behind the walls as needed. Pat Dignan's lighting nicely sets up a contrast between the club and the other locations called for in the script.

The plot has an admittedly predictable arc, but O'Connor is careful to make her characters multi-dimensional -- particularly Claire and Robert. Inevitably, the truth about the girls' ages comes out, but the playwright's sensitive handling of the nuances accompanying this revelation feels fresh. She avoids a moralizing stance, instead focusing on the human consequences for all involved, and leaving it up to the audience to ponder who's to blame, or if that's even the right question to ask.