'Jailbait'

They're cruel, they're reckless, and they're dangerous as hell. They're teenage girls, and Deirdre O'Connor has their number in "Jailbait," a terrific little play that finds something funny, shocking and sad about two 15-year-old girls who grow up fast when they con their way into a Boston club to meet a couple of horny guys who think these babies are college students.

They’re cruel, they’re reckless, and they’re dangerous as hell. They’re teenage girls, and Deirdre O’Connor has their number in “Jailbait,” a terrific little play that finds something funny, shocking and sad about two 15-year-old girls who grow up fast when they con their way into a Boston club to meet a couple of horny guys who think these babies are college students. Dynamite production, developed under the Cherry Lane Theater’s laudable Mentor Project, makes an auspicious opener for the Cherry Pit, the company’s new Off Broadway space in the West Village.

Young scribe couldn’t have asked for a more compatible mentor than Michael Weller, who made his theatrical bones in the 1970s with well-crafted, multiscene plays about crazy, mixed-up kids searching for the meaning of life — or, at least, sex. But despite the similarities in style, Weller’s youthful characters were never as precocious, or dangerously clueless, as Emmy (Wrenn Schmidt) and Claire (Natalia Payne).

Emmy, seductive and experienced beyond her years in Schmidt’s beautifully manicured perf, has presumably gone all the way numerous times. And now this sophisticated young miss has decided to educate her socially backward friend, Claire, in the fine arts of sexual seduction.

As Payne makes clear in her beguiling perf, Claire may be smart, but she doesn’t know the first thing about clothes, makeup or crashing the club scene to pick up old men in their 20s. So the early scenes of this winsome piece play mostly as comedy, with Emmy painstakingly instructing her plain-jane friend in how to pass herself off as a brainy college girl (at Harvard, no less) who knows her way around.

At first glance, Mark (Peter O’Connor) and his best buddy Robert (Kelly Aucoin) also look as if they are being set up for a nasty joke. The “joke” is that both these guys are over 30 and, no less than the girls, are out of their depth playing in the shallow shoals of the 20-year-old in crowd.

Crassly confident of his deception, Mark is ready to pounce on this hot babe he met last week at a club, and the girl has lined up a good-to-go friend for Robert. But Robert, who is still reeling from being dumped by the woman he’s been living with for the past six years, needs considerable coaching in the basics of girl-hounding. 

The push-and-pull dialogue of a couple of idiot guys looking to get laid without any strings attached is glibly funny, in a “Two and a Half Men” kind of way — until you recall that the sexy babes they’re scheming to nail are 15-year-old girls who have no idea what they’ve signed onto.

But O’Connor is no sitcom hack, and her stringent portrait studies have real psychological depth. Without immediately spelling out the whys and wherefores, she makes it clear that these cute guys are predators, and these innocent girls are every bit as manipulative as the guys. For all their supposed sophistication, both Emmy and Mark are using their wallflower friends to hide their own insecurities. And despite their demurrals of disinterest, Claire and Robert aren’t above getting an education from their more experienced friends.

O’Connor is amazingly good at rendering the tonal pitch and vocal rhythms of overheard dialogue, and she pounces on loaded expressions like having “fun,” as a euphemism for sex, and acting “stupid,” as a description of being in love. What gives her work depth is her insistence on exposing the complex motives behind her characters’ rash actions.

Before this long night is over, all four characters will exchange confidences, as well as body fluids, and we have it on the assurance of four fine young actors that the experience can be character-building. But O’Connor is not entirely forthcoming about whether these kids will take advantage of their education-by-fire.

The playwright’s big insight is not that young people lie to those outside their own circle; it’s that they lie to one another — and to themselves. The one question she leaves up in the air here is what they’ve actually learned from their Walpurgisnacht — and if they will ever be generous enough to pass it on to their friends.

Jailbait

Cherry Pit Theater; 90 seats; $40 top

Production

A Cherry Lane Theater presentation of a play in one act by Deirdre O'Connor. Directed by Suzanne Agins.

Creative

Set, Kina Park; costumes, Rebecca Bernstein; lighting, Pat Dignan; sound, Daniel Kluger, Brandon Wolcott; production stage manager, Libby Unsworth. Opened March 25, 2009. Reviewed March 24. Running time: 1 HOUR, 30 MIN.

Cast

Emmy - Wrenn Schmidt Claire - Natalia Payne Robert - Kelly Aucoin Mark - Peter O'Connor

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