"American Girls" suffers from an identity crisis. One moment, it's a realistic drama about corrupted teenagers, next it's a stylized satire about religion and pop culture. Since playwright-star Hilary Bettis and director Jeff Cohen won't commit to either perspective, they leech the power of both.

“American Girls” suffers from an identity crisis. One moment, it’s a realistic drama about corrupted teenagers, next it’s a stylized satire about religion and pop culture. Since playwright-star Hilary Bettis and director Jeff Cohen won’t commit to either perspective, they leech the power of both. 

As performers, Bettis and Kira Sternbach make remarkably convincing middle school students. With warp-speed speech and regular giggle fits, they sell early scenes, when their characters sneak away to a dance competition, as innocent conspiracies between girlfriends. And later, when their plans have horrible consequences, they slouch their shoulders and hide their hands in their sleeves, just like uncomfortable kids.

The script, however, strains credulity. For one thing, Bettis can’t decide if these girls are madonnas or whores. They constantly talk about church and teen idols like Zac Efron, yet they know the “dance competition” they are entering is for strippers. In the same conversation, they mention fake IDs, the hunger for fame, and getting text messages from cute boys.

Some of these contradictions can be credited to adolescence, but the play’s structure is equally illogical. For instance, if these children are savvy enough to enter a stripathon, why are they so naive about the “Hollywood agent” who approaches them after the show and casts them in a low-budget porno? It’s hard to accept that they think a skin flick will make them legitimate actresses.

Ultimately, though, Bettis needs her characters to get duped into porn careers. That way, she can make her social argument.

Once they’ve sullied themselves, the girls become symbols. In the aftermath of their film’s release, they embody everything from celebrity worshippers to religious zealots who manipulate the media with their faith.

Bettis’ insights remain superficial. For instance, live-action scenes are intercut with several short videos of the girls goofing around. These are supposed to decry our obsession with being recorded, but we’ve understood that problem for decades. Simply identifying it isn’t revelatory.

Director Cohen, who helmed a magnificent 2003 production of Tristine Skyler’s adolescent drama “The Moonlight Room,” cannot shape this material. Though designer Ryan Elliot Kravetz provides a large playing space, Cohen locks his thesps into one small square. This feels especially stagnant in the realistic scenes.

Most bizarrely, when we see video of the girls being interviewed by an Oprah-style talkshow host, helmer has the live actors stand on stage with their backs to the audience. When the girls on the video speak, thesps bob their heads and move their arms as though they were they were the ones talking. But they are poorly synchronized — and clearly not being filmed — so it’s obvious they’re just pretending. It’s unclear why Cohen would permit such a painfully amateurish conceit.

This is Bettis’ first play, so she can be excused for not hitting a homerun. But Cohen, who is a.d. of presenting company Dog Run Rep, should have enough experience to know when a script isn’t ready for production.

American Girls

45th Street Theater; 99 seats; $25 top

Production

A Dog Run Rep presentation of a play in one act by Hilary Bettis. Directed by Jeff Cohen.

Creative

Sets, Ryan Elliot Kravetz; costumes, Gail Cooper-Hecht; lighting, Evan Purcell; video, Gray M. Winslow; production stage manager, Michal V. Mendelson. Opened April 6, 2008. Reviewed April 4. Running time: 1 HOUR, 25 MIN.

Cast

Amanda - Hilary Bettis Katie - Kira Sternbach
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