Ming Peiffer Is Here to Tell You About Usual Girls and Is Leaving Nothing Out
Roundabout Underground premieres Peiffer's bold new play about growing up female in America.
It's the cardinal sin of romantic comedies and pop songs to be classified as one of the Usual Girls, the title of Ming Peiffer's no-holds-barred coming-of-age play, directed with just as much daring by Tyne Rafaeli at Roundabout Underground. As Peiffer's main character Kyeoung (Midori Francis) unloads in a diatribe of revelation, girls are taught to be the gorgeous yet oblivious ones who compel a strapping gentleman to teach them about their own unrecognized beauty — the ones who get the guy to say, "You're not like all the others." Peiffer's play is unapologetically for and about "all the others," and while the story skews painfully dark, it's all painfully true.
Of course, not every girl will grow up in Kyeoung's particular circumstances. On her elementary school playground, she naively brags to her best friends Anna and Lindsay (Abby Corrigan and Nicole Rodenburg, respectively) about the pornographic magazines she looks at with her father (played in a few unsettling scenes by Karl Kenzler) and describes a disturbing incident with her babysitter's son that ended with Kyeoung holding her tongue and bearing a punishment for what amounted to an act of self-defense. Those traumas I'm sure are shared by a subset of the audience. But even if it's dissipated into the fog of early memory, every girl has encountered a tool-bag-in-training like Rory (Raviv Ullman), the little boy who shows up on the playground to blackmail Lindsay for a kiss (he heard all the "bad words" they said and is prepared to tell the teacher if Lindsay doesn't meet his demands). He manages to throw a racist slur at Kyeoung as well, while suggesting that her Korean DNA makes her genitals look different from those of her white friends. So much baggage is packed into one recess, but as the girls develop and stakes escalate, you look back at that playground like a diseased flower garden where every harmful seed was first planted. And as we all know, as you sow, so you shall reap.
Peiffer traces this unhealthy growth to its logical and harrowing conclusion, much of which is communicated by Kyeoung's adult counterpart — a narrator (played by the beautifully grounded Jennifer Lim) who shares additional anecdotes from her life that we don't see enacted onstage, and who occasionally interacts with her younger self in a few touching moments of compassion.
Apart from those intermittent asides, the play is a composite of scenes following Kyeoung into young adulthood — each one bolder and more boundary-pushing than the last (Arnulfo Maldonado designs the simple but convertible dark-walled set, which opens and closes the space with a removable panel). Francis meets Peiffer's challenge with a fearless performance, passing through the skin of an uninhibited young girl testing her curiosities with stuffed animals into that of a confused and stifled teenager who decides to shave her vagina in an attempt to conform to an ethereal standard of white American beauty (that scene may be the rawest — in every sense of the word — that I've seen attempted on a stage).
The progression from one phase to the next is more a ping-ponging than a straight line, as Ásta Bennie Hostetter's costumes vibrantly trace for Kyeoung. She begins life with an affinity for bright colors and quirky patterns, but when she gets branded a "slut" by all of her childhood friends, she takes on the traditional aesthetic that the word implies, as we see in a cocaine-fueled evening at a club with her college sorority sisters (Corrigan, as an all-grown-up Anna, makes a heartbreaking appearance in that scene as well). A moment of realization then sends Kyeoung swinging in the opposite direction, donning a dark grunge look as she vents about our insidiously patriarchal society.
Few plays so astutely capture the fragility and mutability of the female identity — a concept that's as easily shaken by an offhand comment as it is by momentous trauma. You'd be hard-pressed to find any warm-and-fuzzy moments mixed into Peiffer's coming-of-age story, so don't expect Blossom's father to pop out of the scenery for a heart-to-heart about her first period. As nice as that would be, it doesn't happen for Usual Girls.