The Second Stage Uptown production of “Engagements” is typical of the work done by this top-drawer house. The acting is polished. The direction is smart. And the production values are excellent. But all this well-crafted effort seems wasted on showcasing this deadly comedy by “Mr. Robot” staff writer Lucy Teitler about the childish antics of a group of shallow people with nothing better to do than knife each other in the back.
Kimberly Senior (“Disgraced”) has done all she could to get some oomph into a play unencumbered with plot or purpose. Proper gratitude must also be shown to Wilson Chin for an inventive set that makes the evening’s ordeal less painful. Working with a forced perspective that invites the eye to look far beyond the hothouse setting, the designer shows us a bucolic vista of clear skies and verdant greenery that is hypnotically calming.
No matter where the feeble plot wanders, it always circles back to this pretty New England country club setting, a favorite venue for engagement parties. Lauren (Ana Nogueira, bristling with evil energy ) and her best friend Allison (Jennifer Kim, demure to a fault) are wearing dowdy party dresses and knocking back glasses of champagne, but sweet, stupid Allison is the only one enjoying herself at this shindig. She’s got a nerdy but dependable boyfriend named Mark (the almost invisible Michael Stahl-David) and looks forward to having an engagement party of her own.
Lauren has no trouble getting boyfriends and less trouble dropping them. She recently shed someone named Peter who now cries a lot in public, and her current boyfriend is a high school janitor. But at the same time that she’s contemptuous of the current crop of men (“He’s so mediocre,” she says of one, “it’s almost ostentatious”), she envies her girlfriends for marrying them.
In short, Lauren is having an existential crisis. “I’m bored all the time,” she frets about the narrow lives that she and her friends are living. But her only inspiration for alleviating the boredom — “Let’s have sex with strangers!” — doesn’t resonate with anyone else at this party. Except Mark.
The two of them don’t have much in common. She’s going for her Ph. D. in Victorian literature and his field is Comp Lit, which actually makes them sort of enemies. But they do, indeed, have sex at one of the many engagement parties held over this long, boring summer. (In fact, the occasion happens to be at Mark and Allison’s own engagement party.) After this initial seduction, Mark becomes so obsessed with Lauren, he turns into a stalker, but an inept one who sends her trashy lingerie and tacky sex toys.
Two more characters show up to tell the audience what we already know, but add nothing to the wisp of a plot. Teitler clearly has a tender spot for Lauren. “It’s obvious I have a very low self-regard,” she says in a rare moment of self-reflection. But while the scribe does have a modest gift for snarky dialogue, she’s squandered it on an aimless play about deeply unlikable characters that give their generation a very bad name.