Prolific author Joyce Carol Oates writes meaty roles for women and extra juicy ones for adolescent girls. That, no doubt, explains why the haunted, humorless characters in the sketchily plotted drama “Bad Girls,” about three teens who sabotage their unstable mom’s last chance at a healthy relationship, would appeal to the youthful creatives involved in this project. Sadly, nobody gets to hone their chops in Susana Tubert’s leaden production, misconceived as a naturalistic melodrama whose reality lies in the physical details, instead of as a delicate memory piece that needs the moody interplay of light and shadow to bring out its themes.
The helmer’s overly literal production crowds the ungainly playing space with clunky furniture and fussy props to establish that we are in a small city in upstate New York, in the shabby apartment of Marietta Murchison (Deborah LaCoy), an attractive, but worn-down single mom struggling to keep her three teen daughters sweet and wholesome.
Marietta is so flaky, and so caught up in a new romance with a construction worker named Isaak Drumm (David Sims Bishins), that she can’t see trouble coming. Although 13-year-old Crystal (Sarah Hyland) is still a baby and 15-year-old Orchid (Merritt Wever) has a mind of her own, 16-year-old Isabel (Anastasia Webb), or Icy as she calls herself, is already on her way to becoming a “bad girl” if somebody doesn’t stop her. Nobody does; and when nice-guy Isaak wins Marietta’s bruised heart, Icy instigates his ouster, convincing her sisters they should break into his apartment and look for evidence to prove he’s just another pig of a man who will hurt their mother and break up the family.
The girls go through with their reckless action, with predictably disastrous results. As we learn from Orchid, who narrates the story from five years in the future, Isaak is ruined, Marietta is wrecked and the family flies apart. (Have we mentioned how depressing this story is?)
But the plot, however melodramatic, is not the essential feature of Oates’ storytelling — which is why her books make such uneasy stage adaptations. The real action of her stories is internal, in those secret chambers of the mind where her characters fight their bigger battles. There are plenty of hints to the characters’ psychological turmoil in the dialogue, which is surprisingly tender in articulating the girls’ ambivalent feelings about growing up and getting out from under their mother’s protective wing.
“I wish momma was happy with just us,” Crystal confides in Orchid. “You know what I love best? We’re all home here, at night, and outside it’s dark, real dark, windy, maybe snowing. Just us.”
But that moment, like so many others, makes little impact because the actors are too busy playing with their food and fussing with their costumes to engage their characters on anything but a superficial level. Meanwhile, their director is too distracted maneuvering them through the badly lit, debris-littered minefield of a set to think of telling them to just stop … (long pause) and think about what they are saying.