Until it self-destructs — crushed by the weight of its own self-regard — “U.S. Drag” seems well worthy of the Blackburn Prize conferred on scribe Gina Gionfriddo for her satirical look at a generation raised to expect the material world to fall into its lap, but hungry for more substantial values. Young, fit and hot to go, the self-assured thesps in helmer Trip Cullman’s production for StageFarm have the stuff to make a smart showing of the young career climbers whose lives are transformed by a serial killer named Ed. But when the satire turns into self-worship, even Ed wears out his welcome.
Gionfriddo is at her wittiest in the opening scenes that introduce us to best friends Allison (Tanya Fischer) and Angela (Lisa Joyce), ambitious young things positively affronted at having to start their careers in low-paying jobs. “I don’t want to be entry level,” Allison protests, pointing out that the work is demeaning to someone of her intelligence and education — and the pay is pathetic. “It’s hard to work for a little when what you want is a lot. I want a lot.”
Although she only holds a Magna to Allison’s Summa, Angela is even huffier about their sense of entitlement — and their humiliating need for money. Both thesps are adorably hateful as these pouty princesses storm the stage in their chic little club dresses, fuming about the unfairness of a pay-for-play society that refuses to acknowledge their existential superiority.
Helmer Cullman is just as clever at establishing a visceral sense of the hermetic world where the girls and their friends circulate. There are some flaws in the design: Aside from the aesthetic lift, little use is made of the catwalk level of Sandra Goldmark’s two-tiered set of heavy metal scaffolding and chain link fencing — so tough it could pass for a prison until the neon club lights flash on and the indoor furnishings fly in. And while the jangling rhythms of Bart Fasbender’s sound design reflect the frenetic situations in which Allison and Angela become involved, the surroundsound approach overwhelms any more subtle emotional interactions onstage.
But these are correctable problems, and the show looks good; so do the thesps playing the various losers and weepers who figure in the girls’ unstable lives.
Again, Gionfriddo is best at introductions, and first impressions are strong. James Martinez makes mincemeat of a trust fund kid who enlists Allison and Angela in his bleeding-heart campaigns to rescue death-row inmates, downtrodden prostitutes and other dubious victims of society. “I know the pain one feels in impotence,” he says, telling the girls, who are hitting him up for money, all they need to know about him.
Matthew Stadelmann finds inspiration in the animal kingdom, bringing the unloveliest aspects of a wasp and a snake to his keen study of Ned, a petulant Wall Streeter who lets the girls crash in his apartment, so long as they bring friends home to party.
Logan Marshall-Green cunningly hides his natural charisma to take on Christopher, a lionized author whose work of “creative nonfiction” is no more than the childish whine of someone who feels insufficiently adored by his parents. A simple question about the “truth” of his book triggers a lecture on postmodernism that brings out the best of Gionfriddo’s cutting satiric style.
While such displays of withering wit are fine for skewering the pretensions of all the characters in this aimless play, they don’t add up to a plot. There are stirrings of one when Allison and Angela find themselves at a meeting of S.A.F.E., which stands for “Stay Away From Ed.” Ed is a serial killer who lures his victims by asking them for help, so this victims’ advocacy group has come up with an odd way to foil him: “Don’t help. We can just not help each other.”
As group leader Evan (Lucas Papaelias) tells the troops, “A good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan.” But the girls are so desperate for money that they go out hunting for Ed, hoping to collect the reward.
It takes a while to catch on, but at some point in Cullman’s fast-and-furious staging of the play’s sketchy scenes, it becomes evident that Gionfriddo has lost interest in her plot premise. As have Allison and Angela, who pinball from whim to whim pursuing money, boyfriends and, in Allison’s unbelievable case, a purpose in life (“I just want to matter,” she declares).
Things happen, to be sure, in this busy piece, and characters continue to say smart things when cornered. Angela, for one, delivers a wonderful speech about the value of superficial social interactions. And Christopher has some shrewd things to say about self-destructiveness. But it appears as if the playwright, like her narcissistic characters, feels that when it comes to the mundane chores of basic dramaturgy, she’s entitled to a free pass.