In the last year alone, there have been at least three films — “Bring It On,” “Sugar and Spice,” “But I’m a Cheerleader” — that make strong use of cheerleading as setting, metaphor and/or a simple emblem of pure-bred Americana. Now along comes a play that utilizes cheerleading in all three ways at once, and also, in far less expected fashion, as an outlet for a teenager’s grief over her mother’s death. In “Be Aggressive,” the first full-length play by promising 28-year-old Annie Weisman, peppy chants become slogans of anger, loss and loneliness. The play, receiving its premiere at La Jolla Playhouse, doesn’t quite meld its various stylistic and thematic strains with complete success, but Weisman demonstrates a talent for language, an ambitious theatricality and a sharp satirical wit that provide limitless hope for her writing future.
Set in a beachfront community in Southern California — Weisman herself grew up in the San Diego suburb of Del Mar — “Be Aggressive” is filled with lingual gymnastics even more than actual tumbling. The play begins with some stichomythic exposition — stylized, rapid-fire dialogue — from a chorus of cheerleaders, filling us in on the hit and run car accident that has killed our protagonist’s mom while she was jogging on a scenic road. We then visit the home of the bereaved family, where 17-year-old Laura (Angela Goethals) suddenly finds herself needing to care for her ultra-precocious 11-year-old sister Hannah (Daisy Eagan) and her highly dependent dad Phil (Mark Harelik).
When she returns to her cheerleading squad, most members run off in fear of addressing the loss, but Laura soon finds a best buddy in Leslie (Jennifer Elise Cox). What the two girls have in common is a lack of self-esteem (“Duh!,” Leslie responds when Laura asks her if she suffers from the problem) and a resentment at being relegated to the “spotter” position in the squad, where they watch the other cheerleaders do the real stuff. Determined to prove themselves leaders and not just standbys — cheerleading, after all, is life itself — the two conspire to run off to a cheerleading camp/self-help seminar called “The Spirit Institute of the South.”
The storyline in “Be Aggressive” isn’t fully fleshed out, and there is a bit of a style-over-substance problem that’s exacerbated by Lisa Peterson’s production. Polished and creative, the production is energetic, colorful and slightly overdone. The cheering motif, which Peterson weaves into the scene transitions, putting her chorus on roller skates, often overshadows the emotions that really drive this work. Whether it’s the writing or the directing, “Be Aggressive” can’t quite pull off the difficult, maybe even impossible, blend of camp and meaningful drama.
The center of the play, the character of Laura, never quite feels real enough for us to care about her. Goethals carries the stylized physicality of the cheering into the domestic scenes, which strips these of their poignancy.
Playing an 11-year-old, Tony Award-winner Eagan (“The Secret Garden”) hits the right balance of reality and theatricality, while Goethals seems to feel the need to remind the audience unnecessarily that she’s not really a teenager even though she’s playing one. While Weisman’s humor is very well served here — especially by Cox’s sharp timing and ever-amusing snideness — the undercurrents of authenticity stay too far under.
There’s a significant subplot that runs through, and ultimately dominates, the play — Phil is consulting on a freeway project that most of the town despises, and Leslie’s mother Judy (an excellent Linda Gehringer) is among the leaders of the opposition. The political chants of the protesters — not unlike cheers, of course — can be heard through the nonexistent windows of Rachel Hauck’s mostly bare, pompom inspired set design. Thematically, Weisman is working with issues of loss and change, and she layers these elements into what’s happening to the town, the adolescent girls and the grieving family. The intelligence and complexity of this effort bode exceptionally well — no question, Weisman is a young playwright to watch. (Her next play, “Hold Please!,” will premiere at South Coast Rep in September.)
Even when the story ceases to be especially interesting, when we’re just waiting for Laura to have her inevitable epiphany, the pop-culture-saturated dialogue remains sparklingly original and fun. In a late scene, Weisman goes so far as to have the adults break out into a cheer expressing their loneliness. This moment defines both what’s risky, bold, unusual and witty about Weisman’s writing, on the one hand, and what doesn’t quite make its full, intended impact on the other.