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Joey Shea and Katie Walder in a publicity
photo for No. 11 (Blue and White)
(Photo: Risa Korris)
Alexandra Cunningham's No. 11 (Blue and White)--like Stephen Belber's Tape, also currently running Off-Broadway--deals with rape as both a physical event and social phenomenon. These plays force their characters to decide who and what is right, and to re-examine their relationships under a harsh new light. In both cases, the deadly serious subject matter is lightened by the off-handedly caustic humor of youth. But Cunningham, to borrow the title of a third, dark, Off-Broadway offering, has a more brutal imagination. While the parrying trio at the center of Belber's play work slowly towards some sort of equilibrium, Cunningham's characters just become crueler and crueler as their world grows darker and darker--painted with less and less white, as it were, and far more blue.

No. 11 is the story of Reid (Joey Shea), a cocky and malicious senior at what appears to be a posh New England prep school. It is also the story of Alex (Katie Walder), Reid's best friend and partner in banter, a beautiful and self-possessed young woman with a definite mean streak of her own. What precious little emotional movement occurs in the play is within Alex, whose affection for Reid--as well as her feelings about herself--are tested by his monstrous actions. It doesn't give anything away to say that Reid is a rapist. He's also a bully, a liar, and a cheat, the kind of guy who threatens to punch his mother ("I don't care who you are") when her questions get too personal. Helping to make such an unredeemable personality believable--besides the fact that, sadly, No. 11 is based on real events--is that Reid represents the logical extreme of the mean-spirited world Cunningham has painted around her characters, the end result of a universe nearly absent of sympathy.

Whether Cunningham is offering an indictment of spoiled youth in general or simply giving us a portrait of one dysfunctional microcosm, No. 11 is a scathing piece of work. Unfortunately, in this debut New York City production, the slings and arrows often fall short of the mark. It might be the casting (of Shea in particular) that's not working, or it might be the efforts of director Daniel Aukin, but the performances generally lack the self-confidence to make such a brash piece of writing take root. Shea's Reid--arch and ironic, insecure and wavering in his meanness--acts most of the time like he's just plain bored. To a lesser extent, the same is true of Walder's Alex and the other cool kids (Adam Groves and Robin Taylor as Reid's peanut gallery, Liza Lapira as his clueless girlfriend). Eventually, watching people being bored on stage gets boring. It doesn't help that Aukin keeps the pacing of the show kind of pokey, leaving room for all sorts of raised-eyebrow beats and sidelong glances when what's needed is bam-bam-bam dialogue for all the put-downs and braggadocio to fly.

Another problem is in the construction of the piece; perhaps out of fealty to actual events, Cunningham's ending is largely inconclusive. Instead of answers to the questions raised by the narrative, we get Alex's personal, internal resolution--or something approaching resolution. Though the young woman's semi-catharsis is beautifully rendered in a long, painful monologue by Walder that continues the play's dialogue between love and violence, one wishes Cunningham had found a way to end the narrative as well as Alex's emotional journey.

The finest performances in No. 11 are from the members of the supporting cast, notably peppy Nell Mooney as Paige, whose desperation to be down with the hip kids leads her to a hideous betrayal. Mooney has a livelihood and a sense of engagement that is too often absent in Aukin's production. Even with these flaws, No. 11 has a lot of impact due to its revelation of harsh realities--none of which, to Cunningham's credit, are softened or apologized for. Unless you count Reid's hapless sucker of a mother (Hilary Edson), these characters don't do much to help or shield one another. There are tiny attempts at redemption, forgiveness, and/or reconciliation, but all are unsuccessful. No. 11 brings us to an uncomfortable place and leaves us there.

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