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Luke MacFarlane, Ian Brennan, Aubrey Dollar,
and Erica N. Tazel in Juvenilia
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Though two actors portray lizards in Edward Albee's Seascape, Wendy MacLeod's Juvenilia may be the first play ever in which an actual lizard upstages four hyperkinetic actors. The electric green reptile, called Nelly (after the best-selling rap entertainer?), resides in a terrarium that has pride of place in the cinderblock dorm room that Michael Yeargan has designed with generous proportions. The sterile space is occupied by Henry (Ian Brennan), a diffident college senior with a couple of decidedly less diffident friends and sleeping partners, Brodie (Luke MacFarlane) and Meredith (Aubrey Dollar).

While Nelly occasionally climbs a lone piece of driftwood and then descends from it but, for the most part, remains wisely still, Henry, Brodie, and Meredith wonder how to fill a dull Friday night. Rather than complete class papers or think seriously about what to do after graduation, they come up with an ugly scheme. Virginal Henry and Brodie, having slept with just about every handy female but the lizard (maybe it's male?), will invite the quiet African-American girl down the corridor over to share some of their pungent pot along with the beer that's well-stocked in Henry's half-refrigerator. The invitee is Angie (Erica N. Tazel), who has strong Christian beliefs, and the idea is that eventually the two boy-men will seduce her into a threesome. Observing close at hand will be Meredith, who's ready for a night off from coupling with as many men on campus as she can -- and that includes the staff.

It's a sordid set-up, all right, one that playwright MacLeod (The Water Children, The House of Yes, others) thinks represents today's overly privileged students. This is the generation that doesn't date, as Brodie points out, but more directly fornicates and then hangs out; the generation that takes classes in autobiography; the generation that's hip to everything and values nothing as it chats off-handedly about irony. In short, it's a new Lost Generation that MacLeod wants to present, explain, and ultimately seek sympathy for as sound designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen occasionally pipe in strains of cacophonous rock to underscore the psychic din. MacLeod achieves her aim in a derivative work that calls up Kenneth Lonergan's This is Our Youth, Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men, and Jamie Johnson's eye-opening documentary Born Rich.

In the course of a long Friday night's journey into Saturday morning, Henry and Angie almost have a hot time when it turns out that the young woman's Christian upbringing doesn't preclude a random roll in the hay. Brodie and Meredith, who've been linked for some time but now more passionately fling obscenities at each other, break up. Meredith, having declared that she doesn't "talk about feelings," confides in Henry some news about herself and her mother that hints that she's a frightened little girl underneath her brittle exterior. While Angie is alone with Henry, Brodie has the chance to put serious moves on Angie -- this includes singing a few bars of the Rolling Stones's "Angie" to her -- but gets the heaves before he can close the deal. Pals Henry, Brodie, and Meredith come to some understanding of each other as, thanks to Mark McCullough's lighting, dawn breaks through an unseen hallway window.

It's accurate to say that Juvenilia is eventful, what with all of the shouted arguments, the lacerating vulgarities, the frantic make-out sessions, and the many brewskis tossed back. (A bottle-opener is attached to the side of Nelly's terrarium and Brodie has his personal bottle opener hanging on a chain where, in previous generations, a fellow might have clipped a Phi Beta Kappa key.) But the play is not drama; a sharp ear for the way late-adolescents talk, which MacLeod has, can't make it so. For while the author sets her characters blabbing in their own terrarium of a script (there's no mistaking the symbolic import of Nelly's residence), she sheds little helpful light.

MacLeod has nothing new to say about Generation Y or whatever Generation it is now. The aimlessness of the young in our screwed-up contemporary society has been established and willful behavior masking fear long since noted. Although MacLeod gets around to her subjects' redemption before the delayed final fade-out, there isn't much of redeeming value in her mark-time playwriting, which accounts for an audience member possibly opting to watch a lizard do nothing rather than watch actors do something that amounts to nothing.

Aubrey Dollar and Luke MacFarlane
in Juvenilia
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
MacLeod's work is too easy; examined closely, much of what she writes involves a certain amount of credulity straining. News of Meredith's mother, had it not been awkwardly withheld, would have stopped the play in its tracks early on. Then there's Angie's religious convictions: That she eases up on them so readily isn't believable because she has firmly stated that she doesn't give in to peer pressure.

Not lacking in Juvenilia, however, is authenticity of acting. Brennan, Dollar, and MacFarlane -- all three making their New York debuts -- as well as Tazel sedulously raise their inflections at the end of sentences in the way that teenagers have when shirking commitment to their statements. Similarly, the foursome constantly italicize words in mock sincerity. Wearing Martin Pakledinaz's costumes -- Dollar frequently removes her top -- the four thesps are dauntless in rendering themselves unpleasant company. MacFarlane and Dollar verbally attack each other as if they really mean every stinging word, while Brennan -- walking with pigeon-toed gait -- and the cute-as-a-button Tazel deftly strum the chords of innocence. Pats on the back to them and to director David Petrarca for bringing these characters to life so credibly.

Over the show curtain, which is meant to resemble a vintage, painted campus-scape, Michael Yeargan has placed the words "Puberes Ex Pueris." Aside from containing the word "sex," the Latin phrase is intended to jar thoughts of adolescent childishness, but it also conjures thoughts of the works that Playwrights Horizons has been offering in recent years. Since the not-for-profit organization's mandate has always been to encourage new playwrights, it follows that the scribes tapped will often be young and, therefore, compelled to consider young people's plights. But trouble develops when young playwrights write too young. In Juvenilia Angie says to Brodie as they're flirting in the hall, "I think you're a lot deeper than you pretend to be." Brodie fires back, "You know what? I'm really not." Earlier, Angie has said, "Frankly, Henry, that's not all that deep." These lines nicely summarize MacLeod's work and, indeed, many of the scripts that Playwrights Horizons has deemed worthy of production over the past few years. (The remarkable I Am My Own Wife, which had its world premiere at Playwrights Horizons, was workshopped elsewhere.)

The truest thing about Juvenilia is its title: This work is juvenilia. The sooner Playwright Horizons recognizes the distinction between deserving plays and promising scribbles, the better for its audiences.

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