If Broadway producers ever greenlight a musical based on “Mean Girls,” the Lindsay Lohan pic about a brainy teen who courts popularity partly by pretending to be bad at calculus, they should tap Kathryn Walat to write the book. The scribe already has the template in “Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen,” a familiar but charming new play about deciding which version of yourself to be in high school.
There’s no denying Walat has cribbed her plot from every high school movie since “The Breakfast Club.” Popular sophomore Vicki Martin (Jessi Campbell) is dating the star of the basketball team and flunking most of her classes. Her teacher says she’ll get detention if she doesn’t join the math squad. Bummer! Can Vicki handle the geeks?
But, like, wait a minute. It turns out she’s good at math, helps her team to the state championship and even falls for the dorky-cute senior with early acceptance to MIT.
If it stayed this superficial, the show would still be agreeably pleasant. It’s no small accomplishment that Walat’s witty dialogue can sound carefully crafted while flowing like natural teenspeak. For instance, when her fellow mathletes assume she’s an airhead, Vicki retorts, “You two can write up your lab report, and I can go home and make valuable use of my homework time calling my popular friends. Because I totally have to apply myself to catching up on who has their period today.”
Thanks to an excellent cast, those bon mots land. As directed by Loretta Greco, thesps burst with adolescent energy, but they never go so far over the top that they seem to be mocking their characters. These students are smart, but unlike so many of pop culture’s world-weary adolescents, they still behave like kids.
The production’s sincerity supports Walat as she deepens her writing. As predictably as it begins, the play ends with complicated, honest questions. Take Vicki’s relationship with her recently divorced parents: The specifics of her home life — her mom takes her out for Chinese food on a Monday, which makes her feel wanted — make it touching.
With similar care, Walat crafts math team best friends Max (Tobias Segal) and Franklin (Matthew Stadelmann). Max slowly realizes he wants to kiss his buddy, and when he confesses, the outcome is honest instead of storybook-sweet.
These scenes elevate the play above silliness, but in a lesser production, its missteps could be disastrous.
For all her skill with language and individual scenes, Walat struggles with consistency. Long after she has shifted to a more serious tone, she’ll insert another jokey, high-school-is-wacky scene that kills the momentum of the plot.
Vicki’s character also wavers. Whenever Walat needs to make a joke, our heroine can be a gum-smacking nitwit, but when it’s time for a statement on self-empowerment, she becomes an articulate rebel. (Campbell, at least, unifies her perf with consistent gestures and tones of voice.)
Hopefully, “Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen” will get a rewrite that lets the whole equal the totally awesome parts.