R U Prime?
nytheatre.com review by Kelly Aliano
August 11, 2008
R U Prime?, with music, lyrics, and book by Lucas Roy Lehman and directed by Maura Kelley, is the story of a young woman named Tanya who attempts to find herself by taking an interstate drive in her ex-boyfriend's convertible. Her dream is to be a contestant on "R U Prime?," an American Idol-style reality television competition. Unfortunately, her car breaks down before she ever reaches the audition, and she instead finds herself stranded in Santa Cruz. A young man who calls himself the Starlightman stops to assist her and informs her that her ex-boyfriend's car is beyond repair. He invites her to see his band play that night, which encourages her to stay, at least for a little while, in Santa Cruz. Tanya decides to kill time by earning a little money; she goes into town to sing for her supper, literally. On her way, however, she runs into Will, a fellow street performer, and he invites her to the same night's entertainment as the Starlightman had.
At the concert, Tanya finds herself being initiated into the new kind of family to which Mark (the aforementioned Starlightman) and Will belong. Will's twin sister, Venus, and the final band member, Wesley, complete the group. Tanya ends up going home with Venus and begins a torrid affair with her, while Mark pines for Tanya from afar.
This love triangle is the play's central conflict for a great deal of the show's hour and 40 minutes. The play is also preoccupied with each of the characters' dreams of success; each wants to be a musician in his or her own right, but is finding it difficult to reconcile the demands of that pursuit with the challenges of interpersonal relationships. Neither Tanya's desire to be a reality-television star nor her sexual confusion creates enough tension to really drive the performance forward. In addition, it is hard to establish what Tanya's real objectives are; by not clearly knowing what she wants, it is hard as an audience member to know what we want the final outcome to be. Although I liked all of the characters—they were sympathetic and believably human—I did not find myself caring deeply about what happened to any of them.
The piece picks up steam about two-thirds of the way through. There are some very memorable songs—most notably, a number entitled "Junior"—and the play begins to take on some more compelling issues. The "Jimmy Z" sequence is particularly meaningful; the connection between Mark and Will is reminiscent of Sal and Dean "on the road." The same conflict is at work in this play as was the case in Jack Kerouac's classic novel; saving one's best friend, no matter how many mistakes he has made or how much disappointment he has caused, is a timeless and poignant testament to the power of friendship. In this scene, Mark is the first to discover that Will has a serious drug problem. This scene ushers in a thread for the story to follow, one that is principally concerned with the issue of drug abuse. This raises the dramatic conflict of the piece, while giving the characters something concrete over which to connect.
All of the performances are good. The songs are fine, though the lyrics are often hindered by their own predictability in pursuit of a clean rhyme scheme. Lehman himself plays guitar throughout almost all of the performance, partially hidden behind an upstage screen. The choice to place the musician there seemed a bit odd. It might have been better to work the use of the instrument into the onstage performance itself; it seemed inconsistent that music was such a clear, significant part of the world of this play but was often left obscured.
R U Prime? has been "revision[ed] for its New York premiere with a more intimate feel." In paring down the production, however, something vital may have been lost. This could have been more of a powerhouse piece of theatre with the original six-piece band and the technical elements that were employed in its California incarnations. Perhaps R U Prime? would benefit from being a bit more confrontational and a little less intimate.