See Rock City & Other Destinations, a Transport Group production that opened over the weekend at the Duke on 42nd Street, is encumbered by an inelegant title and a notch too much regard for its admittedly elegant David Cromer-at-the-beach minimalist stagecraft. (“The seating is a bit unorthodox” are words I never want to hear as I’m handed my tickets, and, sure enough, you must witness the laborious construction of a theater in the round before you’re permitted to sit.) But once you get past those hurdles, it turns out to be an excellent and moving new musical.
“See Rock City” is a message painted on hundreds of barn roofs through the Midwest and Southeast-this is true, it turns out-to draw visitors to Rock City, a Tennessee roadside attraction of, well, big rocks. In the first of several overlapping vignettes, an aimless young man heeding the roofs’ advice meets a diner waitress who decides to join him on the trip. Like all the musical’s characters-a widower pining for his dead wife; his lonely daughter; confused high-school friends; a reluctant bride; a UFO obsessive on a pilgrimage to Roswell-this man and woman are searching for connection. They’re also running from it.
This play is also excellent. But there is nothing about it that is beautiful, hopeful or in any way sweet.
The actors in the ensemble cast give mostly understated, affecting performances as the various lonely people, and they all sing beautifully. The lovely and creative direction, by Transport Group artistic director Jack Cummings III, owes a debt to Mr. Cromer’s current Our Town: The audience surrounds the production in the intimate and spare space; cast members share Stage Manager-like narration duties. And Adam Mathias’ book (he also wrote the lyrics; Brad Alexander did the pleasant, vaguely indie-rock score) is reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company: The plotless play examines many relationships, and, in its final scene, the reluctant bride finally makes the choice to be with her fiancé, to be alive.
If that suggests See Rock City is perhaps a touch derivative, well, so be it. I can’t imagine much better theater from which to be derived. It’s also beautiful, it’s hopeful, and it’s-in the best sense of the word-sweet.
LESLYE HEADLAND’S HILARIOUS Bachelorette, which opened Monday night, is also about relationships and connections: Three young women, and the two men they pick up, gather in a posh hotel suite on the night before an old high-school girlfriend is to be married. This play is also excellent. But there is nothing about it that is beautiful, hopeful or in any way sweet.
It’s a scathing portrait of female friendship, full of manipulation, betrayal and copious substance abuse. (I feel for the stagehands at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre, where Bachelorette is presented as part of the Second Stage’s Uptown Series, who eight times a week must clean up stage approximations of spilled water, coffee, vomit, Champagne, flowers, cocaine, cigarettes and a few hundred pills.) But it’s a brilliantly written scathing portrait: These girls are destructive and self-destructive, but they also seem honest, insightful, occasionally wise and, on the occasions when they’re not being horrible, more than a little sympathetic.
Ms. Headland has a gift for dialogue and one-liners-if I had the space, I’d quote a bunch, but just one wouldn’t do the script justice-and she also builds compelling, distinct and occasionally surprising characters. The cast is excellent-especially Tracee Chimo as the domineering and then finally pathetic maid of honor-and Tripp Cullman’s direction is sure and taut.
The biggest name in the cast is Eddie Kaye Thomas, whom you’ll recall from American Pie as the one who won’t use the high-school bathroom, and he’s fine as one of the guys the girls pick up, a junior-banker type in tailored jeans. But the boys aren’t really the point. The girls are, and they’re wonderfully horrible.
YET ANOTHER SCABROUS vision of friendship and relationships arrived last week at the tiny Wild Project in the East Village: Blair Singer’s Notice Me, about a group of high-school friends in Southern California.
The center of the story is Stacy, a Tarzana blonde with a football-player boyfriend and ambitions to be a reality-TV celebrity. Her younger brother, Harry, is the local pot dealer; her friend, Deanna, is the new kid in town and has a crush on Harry; and Craig, her boyfriend, much to her chagrin, is a sensitive nice guy.
Inevitably, everything goes wrong. Craig takes steroids and goes crazy; Harry falls for Deanna and gets abandoned; Deanna gets pregnant and goes crazy; worst of all, Stacy’s Real World audition goes badly.
There are some nice lines of dialogue and a smart production design, but only near its end does the script rise beyond the clichés of an after-school special. “Look at me,” Stacy demands in her Real World audition video. “I’m fucking special.” Actually, not so much.