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Juvenilia

With the possible exception of politicians, college students are the most self-regarding creatures on earth. Wendy MacLeod nails that narcissism with a wry vengeance in this comic drama about two smart-ass seniors. Cleverly written, shrewdly directed and smartly cast, show is less brittle than it sounds.

With:
Henry - Ian Brennan Brodie - Luke MacFarlane Meredith - Aubrey Dollar Angie - Erica N. Tazel

With the possible exception of politicians, college students are the most self-regarding creatures on earth. Wendy MacLeod nails that narcissism with a wry vengeance in this comic drama about two smart-ass seniors, stuck in the dorm on a Friday night writing term papers, who decide to alleviate their boredom by coaxing the virtuous coed next door into a friendly game of group sex. Cleverly written, shrewdly directed and smartly cast, show is less brittle than it sounds, especially once the kids drop their ironic detachment and reveal the quivering anxiety behind their cooler-than-cool facade.

MacLeod (“The Water Children”) gets terrific road service from David Petrarca, who directed that play as well as “Fuddy Meers” and “Kimberly Akimbo” at this venue. His well-mapped direction takes her play where it needs to go — from the goofy antics of bored children to the deeper, more rueful humor of young adults who have acquired the self-knowledge to laugh at themselves without drawing blood. She is also well served by a gifted ensemble of youthful actors (three of them making their New York theater debut) who understand where these screwed-up kids are coming from and refuse to condescend to them.

Aside from the absurdly tidy condition of their dorm rooms, the two friends who are stuck on the campus of their small liberal arts college on the biggest date night of the week are at once recognizable types and distinctive individuals. Henry, the gawky kid riding his exercise bike at wimp speed, is the geeky type who hasn’t had a date all semester and channels his hormonal energies into organizing consumer protests against Wal-Mart. Ian Brennan makes the most of his soulful eyes and muscle-free physique to give Henry the kick-me-please sweetness of a lost puppy.

Henry’s best friend, Brodie, has the lean, mean, sex-machine looks that women find irresistible. Your basic bad-boy rebel, Brodie comes across as both dangerous and needy in Luke MacFarlane’s savvy perf; but he’s had a fight with his girlfriend, Meredith, and the sexual deprivation has put him in a nasty mood tonight.

Boyish bravado aside, the friends are lost without the rich and bratty Meredith around to dazzle them with her beauty, challenge them with her girl-goddess demands and baffle them with her unpredictable intelligence. (“Meredith the Fair,” “Meredith the Great,” they salute her imperial majesty. “Lady MacMeredith.”) It’s a delicious if brutally demanding role, but in Aubrey Dollar’s super-smart perf, Meredith is indeed a worthy object of universal desire.

Studiously avoiding their poli sci paper, the boys start knocking back the beers and talking trash, and by the time the furious Meredith bursts in on them, Brodie has almost persuaded Henry to promote a threesome with Angie (a cute and clever perf by Erica N. Tazel), the wholesome Christian girl next door and Henry’s secret crush.

The sexual dynamics get trickier once Meredith takes over the orchestration of the seduction — not out of lust, or even a sense of mischief, but in a bold display of the fear, anger, self-loathing and other confused emotions driving everyone into this destructive scheme. Everyone, that is, except Angie, who is as sensible as she is wholesome — and not quite the goody-two-shoes everyone takes her for.

“Everything scares me,” Henry confides to her during one of the couplings that are initiated and aborted by these savage little beasts, all groping frantically for something that goes beyond sex. “I’m graduating in eight months,” he says, “and somewhere out there is this alleged life I’m gonna live in this alleged place where I’ll go to this alleged job and live with this alleged woman, but frankly I don’t see how any of those pieces are gonna fall into place.”

“Frankly, Henry,” Angie snaps back, “that’s not all that deep. Everyone feels that.”

It’s swift reversals like that, and there are many of them in this off-kilter comedy, that save the story from sitcom banality and keep the characters from becoming glib cliches. It’s the playwright’s way with language that does the trick, her understanding of the versatile uses these sharp kids find for the idiomatic speech of their generation. Speaking in the intricate dialectics of “cool,” they brandish their brainy, irony-laced wit as both weapon of war and shield of defense.

Everyone within their circle understands the language code. Brodie and Meredith would grasp, for example, Henry’s ironic use of the word “alleged,” recognizing it as a protective disclaimer of the very feelings he’s baring to Angie. But since Angie, an earnest black Baptist from Cleveland, doesn’t subscribe to the code of “cool,” her sensible response surprises and excites Henry — as it does the audience.

For all the indiscriminate sex these kids indulge in, the only time they really freak out is when one of them speaks out of turn. Which is why Angie, the blunt truth-sayer, is such an effective catalyst. Insisting as she does that sex is about knowing another person and that love is about being known, she turns the orgy into something really scary — a truth-telling session at which everyone finally drops the damned irony and starts speaking in declarative sentences.

Juvenilia

Playwrights Horizons; 199 seats; $50

Production: A Playwrights Horizons presentation of a play in two acts by Wendy MacLeod. Directed by David Petrarca.

Creative: Sets, Michael Yeargan; costumes, Martin Pakledinaz; lights, Mark McCullough; sound, Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen; production stage manager, David Sugarman. Artistic director, Tim Sanford. Opened Dec. 7, 2003. Reviewed Dec. 10. Running time: 1 HOUR, 55 MIN.

Cast: Henry - Ian Brennan Brodie - Luke MacFarlane Meredith - Aubrey Dollar Angie - Erica N. Tazel

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