nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
April 5, 2008
When I say that Hilary Bettis's new play American Girls is almost great, don't take that to mean the production is disappointing in any way. American Girls is a thought-provoking, squirm-inducing, very funny meditation on sexual politics among America's youth, and I highly recommend it, even if I think it'll be even better with a little more polish.
Amanda and Katie are two 14-year-old best friends, finishing up their last year in middle school in a small town in Iowa. They have a good life. They love their pastor, their parents, and talk openly about the plan Jesus has for them. As school is winding down, there is little to do but dream about next year and beyond.
The portrait of middle school that Hilary Bettis has painted rings true; the girls obsess over their social position, from possible slights from other girls to boys they'd like to talk to but don't. Bettis has placed them firmly in today's popular culture; they check MySpace and Facebook constantly, and rave about Zac Efron, Hannah Montana, and American Idol.
Both girls have the same kind of dubious self-esteem that I'm sure many of us remember from middle school. They careen wildly from total despair ("Am I fat?") to outrageous self confidence ("Someday, when we're rich and famous and on the cover of a magazine..."). Seasoned by reality TV, both girls talk constantly about fame and how much better their lives would be if they were in Hollywood. Most people would be content to simply talk about it, but the girls have a plan: an ad they've clipped from the paper for a dance competition in town, one that will feature a "Hollywood talent scout."
Of course, the competition requires them to prove they are 18, but through the services of an older boy Amanda has secured them fake IDs.
It is hard to tell you much more, and this is part of the reason I can't quite call the show great yet. The central dramatic event happens way too early, and the show never again reaches that same fever-pitch of intensity. But its thorough deconstruction of sexual morality at a time when people's personalities are fluid is fascinating, and Bettis has penetrating insights to share on the effect of the Internet Age on the psyche of a young person. We live in a time when privacy is rapidly vanishing, and fame seems to drop randomly on some people, and Amanda and Katie see a life in Hollywood as a cure-all that is just out of their grasp.
Amanda, the more outgoing and calculating of the two, has a video camera that she uses to film different segments, and at certain points the girls leave the stage and her video takes over. These elements are for the most part extremely well-integrated, and manage to look like they were filmed by a 14-year-old girl while still being interesting. Director Jeff Cohen and Bettis do a nice job of using the video elements to expand the show's reach, showing us more locations and things like traveling in a car that would be difficult to show on stage, while still making sure the key dramatic actions happen in front of us. The one video segment that falls flat is the segment on the "Dr. Opal Banks Show" late in the play, which goes on too long and needs a higher budget to look credible.
Bettis plays Amanda herself, which is often a sign of danger, but she and Kira Sternbach as Katie are both marvelous. They give subtle, nuanced portraits of girls whose emotions change rapidly without ever lapsing into showiness. I assume both of them are well over the age of 14, but they are completely believable regardless.
American Girls needs a little streamlining, as it runs out of steam towards the end. But I think Hilary Bettis has written an important and fascinating play, and she is without doubt a writer and performer to keep an eye on.