"Hi, I'm Penny. I'm a f*ckup," declares the antihero protagonist of Mike Lew's Bike America as she furiously peddles a stationary bike facing the audience. That is how she introduces herself and for perhaps once in her life, she doesn't disappoint. Now making its New York premiere in a coproduction of Ma-Yi Theater Company and Ensemble Studio Theatre at the Theatre at St. Clement's, Bike America is a darkly humorous take on the cross-country-self-discovery journey. It's a time-honored genre enriched by such bards of the American experience as Jack Kerouac and Britney Spears. Lew has a keen sense of this form yet a palpable mistrust of its inherent clichés. This makes for a refreshing and intelligent exploration of millennial (that's folks born between 1982 and 2004) malaise and its itchy place within the American generational drama.
Twenty-something Penny (Jessica DiGiovanni) is searching for her life. She is unsatisfied with her quotidian and meaningless existence in Boston, as well as her clingy boyfriend, Todd (Vandit Bhatt). She joins a cross-country bike tour on a whim, hoping to find herself and her place in America. For three months, her only companions will be the group leader Ryan (Tom White), handsome Texan Tim Billy (Landon G. Woodson), and lesbian married couple Annabel (Marilyn Torres) and Rorie (Melanie Nicholls-King). She sleeps with 50% of them (I'll let you figure out which half) on their journey from Boston to Santa Barbara, but not even spontaneous sex can get her out of her millennial funk. What does it take to get this girl some Eat, Pray, Love?
Lew (microcrisis) adroitly captures the cross-country genre in his own uniquely cartoonish way, elevating the United States to a mythical land full of magic and monsters. Penny's Homeric journey is shadowed by the enigmatic Man with the Van (David Shih) who is one part Mr. Miyagi and one part Gen-X (1961-1981) burnout. Along the way they encounter a painfully indecisive Ohioan (also Shih) and dangerous Brooklyn artisanal cheese hipsters (Shih and Torres in one of the play's funniest moments). Lew's language oscillates between vulgar and self aware, mirroring a generational defense mechanism that is actually useful when all your traveling companions have to offer is false epiphanies. After they all accuse her of having a "millennial moment," Penny responds, "Why is it that everyone else gets to go on this journey, every other generation gets to go out and find themselves, but when I do it you call it self-absorption and label me a millennial brat?" She's got a point.
DiGiovanni is animated and articulate as Penny. She deftly walks the line between ridiculous and deadly serious, an important skill for this outwardly silly play about important issues. The supporting ensemble, many of whom are playing multiple roles, easily lives in this world of realistic characters in outlandish and uncomfortable situations. A scene in an Arizona clerk's office in which Rorie and Annabel attempt to obtain a marriage license is particularly awkward. As the two women rage against the machine, Lew makes it clear that they are really only raging against a minimum-wage state employee, suggesting that all this righteous indignation is really only manufactured meaning.
Director Moritz von Stuelpnagel hits all the comic beats in Lew's script, keeping the play zooming along like a well-oiled huffy. The theatricalized bikes (front wheels only, except for Penny's stationary bike) are clever and easily manipulated by the actors. Andrew Boyce's versatile set is one big open road with scenic backdrops that fly in and out with ease, indicating the progression of the journey.
Lew seems to be calling BS on the entire self-discovery-road-trip genre in Bike America. While all of the other characters in the play hurl platitudes in her general direction, Penny doesn't seem to register any of it. Is it because she is self-absorbed, as has been so often the charge against her generation, or is it that she is suffering under the tyranny of expectations? Like the real world, there are no big revelations in Lew's play, spare the ones we create for ourselves. This makes it an infinitely realistic stage experience, despite the outsized personality and vibrant colors of the play.