YouTube star Christina Bianco takes her stockpile of characters to the ruthless world of kindergarten admissions.
Co-playwrights Andy Sandberg and Greg Edwards have an affinity for treating plays like a giant jigsaw puzzle — and for taking hands-free phone calls. When we first encountered this writing team, they were spoofing the travel industry and its demanding clientele in Craving for Travel, a multicharacter play performed by two headset-donning actors whose crisscrossing story lines neatly resolved by the time the phones stopped ringing. Sandberg and Edwards have now returned to the off-Broadway stage with Application Pending at the Westside Theatre, a one-woman sequel to their first collaboration. However, the stakes have been raised by their industry of choice — kindergarten admissions — a field with a customer base that revels in dissatisfaction even more than high-maintenance world travelers.
Sandberg, who directs his new play, has been blessed with the presence of master impressionist and YouTube sensation Christina Bianco, whose talent for vocal metamorphosis compensates for much of the production's canned jokes and lackluster dialogue. Best known for her renditions of popular songs featuring rapid-fire character changes, Bianco translates her shape-shifting talents to what is essentially a 75-minute monologue — an exhausting exercise that she seems to tackle effortlessly.
Dressed in the trademark cardigan-khaki ensemble of conservative teachers (carefully selected by costume designer Michael McDonald), Bianco plays Christine, a single mother and newly "promoted" director of pre-primary admissions at Edgely Preparatory Academy in Manhattan. Reviewing student applications and manning phone calls from overzealous, overmonied parents is not her ideal occupation, but after spending some time as an assistant kindergarten teacher at the elite institution, conquering this office job will bring her one step closer to her dream job as the educational leader of her very own kindergarten classroom.
The phones are ablaze from the moment she takes a seat behind her desk, surrounded by framed finger paintings and other buttoned-up homages to elementary school whimsy by set designer Colin McGurk. As she picks up each call, Bianco takes on a new character, all of whom quickly become familiar voices. There's the overbearing Jewish mother Shoshanna Feigenbaum, who insists on sending footage of her son's theatrical acumen; there's Pamela Upton Drinkwater, a nipped-and-tucked millionairess who adopted a young boy from Africa as an act of charity; there's Dr. Bradshaw, principal of Edgely, who demands that Christine forsake plans with her son to attend the school's gala; and then there's the beacon of hope — the working-class widower Buddy O'Reilley who modestly seeks out a scholarship for his young boy. The list goes on, as do the story lines that eventually tie things up nicely for Christine as a mother, career woman, and empowered wielder of that dreaded "DENY" stamp.
With puzzle pieces flying every which way, there's little time for much more than a slew of one-dimensional archetypes and a crude send-up of our culture's newest paranoia. It's always satisfying to satirize the ridiculous parental neuroses that have trickled down to the most inconsequential year of a child's academic life. But Edwards and Sandberg sacrifice cleverness for the sake of efficiency, an unfortunate by-product of this phone-bound structure they've grown so fond of. Bianco makes the play her own, seizing it for the vehicle that it is for her own unique brand of performance. But as she breaks out her world-class Celine Dion impression for a "call waiting" detour, you almost hope she decides to scrap the play and give us some more of "The Prayer."