Those poor girls with big trust funds and low self-esteem! Their problems are so very … sincere, at least in Jessie McCormack’s play “Spine.” A small but intriguingly sly play, ever-shifting between the smart and the silly, “Spine” manages to make us care, at least a little, about the two rather ridiculous characters at the core of this kind-hearted comedy.
Playwright McCormack plays Julie, a rich girl and aspiring novelist who hates writing. She’s recovering from a messy breakup (her ex is referred to only as “Satan”) and has enough emotional baggage that she’s checked herself into a “retreat.” Her roommate there is Gwynn (Aliza Waksal), a rich girl who just can’t decide whether she should move to Australia to be with her scuba diving instructor.
The two actresses play the supporting roles as well: McCormack is Gwynn’s Valley girl-like best friend Brittany and Waksal is Julie’s sister Claire.
The thesps alternate as therapist Dr. Sanders, a chain-smoking weirdo who can be exasperating or insightful, sometimes both.
As a writer, McCormack charmingly combines the intelligent, even esoteric, in her language with the just plain goofy. And her characterizations are strong and bizarre enough to show off the imagination of a promising comic dramatist: Julie is driven to spout limericks whenever they occur to her; Gwynn can remember what happened to her every day of her life, going back to when she was born.
The truth is, though, that the acting here doesn’t quite live up to the writing, which makes “Spine” cute rather than really good. McCormack is very funny as a performer, an appealing ham who’s best at the broadest, wackiest humor, but a transformational actor she isn’t, at least not yet. It takes a while for us to figure out the edges of her characters — Julie is so different on the phone with her sister Claire than with her roommate Gwynn that I thought there were two distinct characters there for a while. Sure, Julie should be different in these different contexts, but when one actor plays multiple roles, it’s a bad idea to split one of those roles quite that schizophrenically.
We always know when Waksal shifts characters because of some useful props — a scarf for Dr. Sanders and a pair of eyeglasses for Claire. But Waksal isn’t a chameleon performer, and her characterizations are very limited, even for the central Gwynn. It’s not an easy role; while pulling off the basics, she never quite convinces us of Gwynn’s defining indecisiveness and humorous inability to “gauge” volume. It’s a part that cries out for the sharply nuanced skills of Reese Witherspoon.
Director Craig Carlise, who also helmed this play in New York with the same cast, keeps the staging likably unpretentious and even-keeled, even if he doesn’t quite get his actors to launch themselves into these characters with full force.