The surreal world of child- beauty pageants is an endless supply of source material for deft comedies (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and TV reality shows (“Little Beauties”). But co-writers (and cast members) Mark Setlock and Matthew Wilkas’ shrill and confused four-hander, “Pageant Play,” receiving its premiere in the Massachusetts Berkshires, hits all the wrong notes in story, tone and performance.
Setlock tapped successfully into the restaurant world subculture as co-creator and performer of the solo show “Fully Committed.” But here he and Wilkas pen a piece that is crass, cruel and only occasionally amusing, despite its rich subject matter. It’s unclear whether the show wants to be a simple fun-loving satire, a story with a subtext about abuse (child, spousal, generational) or just an outrageous drag show, with over-the-top perfs that would make P-Town divas blush.
Show starts out promisingly as a simple spoof with two ultra-flamboyant pageant coaches, Bob (Wilkas) and Bobby (Setlock), giving the audience a tutorial on the tricks of the child-beauty pageant. Bobby is the dominant figure of the duo, in charge of poise and finesse, while mild-mannered and deferential Bob specializes in hair and makeup.
“Who here has an ugly child?” asks Bobby to his Red Roof Inn seminar crowd. “Well, she can still get a crown!” Just follow Bob and Bobby’s guidance on how to work those sassy shoulders and pucker pouts and your hideous child, too, can be a winner in tulle and taffeta. Though it will cost you plenty.
But then a more complicated — and absurd — narrative follows after that first coaching session. Enter Pinky (Jenn Harris), a terror of a stage mom and an old pro on the kid-pageant circuit. She warns her daughter Chevrolet to follow instructions on the secrets of winning, or else “Momma’s gonna get pissy.”
But when Chev — who has been winning contests since she was 3 weeks old — gets toppled from her throne in the regionals by little Puddle and her new-to-the-scene mom, Marge (Daiva Deupree), the battle lines are drawn as both vie for the coveted national crown.
“I wish you would talk more, Puddle,” says Marge — and for good reason. Throughout the show the kids are represented by tiny pageant gowns tossed about the stage, pointing up the careless attitudes these stage mothers have toward their daughters. At least no children were harmed during the production, but a slightly creepy air remains, underscored when JonBenet Ramsey’s name is mentioned and the characters’ darker sides emerge.
For Marge, the competition is a way to escape her lonely, white-trash life — her husband is in the pen for spousal abuse, but still expects conjugal visits. Pinky’s obsession is rooted in her own twisted childhood with her pageant-driven mother. Problem is, these characters are hideously drawn cartoons; any attempt at serious subtext is unbelievable at best, or at worst just another form of exploitation.
Helmer Martha Banta directs with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, though Deupree registers a few moments of maternal authenticity. Overall, the production has a bare-bones rather than gloriously tacky feel. Play’s last-minute moments of poignancy are cheap and unearned, ultimately giving the audience little to smile about.