Matthew Schneck’s confused new play “Badge” is its own evil twin, coupling a potentially affecting comedy about death and mourning with a lame, unfunny satire about a mentally ill 29-year-old Boy Scout named Roy. Lead Greg McFadden’s bizarro energy and friendly innocence keep the piece afloat long enough to get us interested, but a duet of lame punchline endings and two deeply uncomfortable performances from Darrell James finally sink the ship.
“I’m scared,” says Roy, near the end of “Badge.” “Scared of life. Always letting life happen to me, instead of happening to life.” Indeed, life has been happening to Roy in a number of ways that would seem to justify his fears. A badge away from earning every single embroidered patch that the BSA offers, Roy has entangled himself in a web of lies and murder (or near-murder). It’s enough to keep most Tenderfoots indoors, no matter how many old ladies need help crossing the street.
Roy, however, is determined to get a job and get back on track, regardless of the interference of his nutty new girlfriend, Jessica. Played with a frank, earthy lunacy by Tara Falk, Jessica shows up on Roy’s doorstep one evening, claiming sisterhood to Scoutmaster Brad (James) and asking for a $50 loan. She’s clearly crazy and a little mean, but understandably attractive to the monastic Roy, who hasn’t dated since his last girlfriend killed herself five years ago. Falk impressively leapfrogs Jessica’s embarrassing dialogue, even the rhyming nonsense words that Schneck writes for her to use as terms of endearment (“jerky ba derky?” Dr. Seuss he ain’t).
The relationship, as one might imagine, doesn’t go smoothly. Almost immediately, Jessica is asking Roy to steal something valuable from his wealthy employer Mrs. Penderpoint (Glynis Bell) to solve Jessica’s mysterious money problems. Penderpoint is Howard Hughes by way of “Sunset Boulevard”; she can’t abide germs and has the instant hots for Roy, despite being twice (three times? four?) his age.
It’s a funny enough conceit for a few sight gags and double entendres, but Schneck lets his character have her way with the script, rattling on ad infinitum and robbing her scenes of energy, despite Bell’s best efforts to tart up her character’s cul-de-sac monologues.
Brian Prather’s otherwise unremarkable set design looks its best here; the walls to Penderpoint’s home are topped with black-and-white Lichtenstien prints, and the blindingly lit room radiates an obsession with cleanliness.
Roy’s life is further complicated by twin invasions from James, first as the suspicious scoutmaster who’s afraid Roy is “a weirdo, or a pervert,” and then, awkwardly, as officer McCurdy, a redneck cop “from ‘Bama” who uses all the teeth-grinding expressions that Jessica didn’t get around to (“checkeroo!”).
If Schneck had tried to make sense of all this, he probably could have orchestrated a sort of George S. Kaufman-style spectacle with his horny dowager and his virtuous hero. Instead, he opts for the Charlie Kaufman route, internalizing Roy’s conflict, and revealing features of his mental illness that could charitably be called surprising.
More accurately, though, those features are simply unsound. The characters brim with self-conscious quirkiness, and director Jenn Thompson has encouraged her actors to ham up their performances, so the unexpected burst of introspection seems to come from a different play altogether.
It’s a shame, because that play must be beautifully written. Roy’s revelatory monologue about his girlfriend’s death ties together the parts of the play that seem out of joint, and reveals impressive things about both Roy and Schneck that the rest of the piece obscures. Perhaps deadpan direction would have helped; perhaps the play’s conflicted nature can’t be reconciled. Despite its disruptive problems, there’s a touching worthiness — call it merit — about “Badge.”