The Diary of a Teenage Girl
nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
March 24, 2010
If you've ever been, or known, or loved a teenage girl, then maybe you understand the kind of rueful mixture of affection and horror that I feel when I think about how much Everything Mattered, how it felt to feel everything that intensely, with only the faintest glimmer of ability to see that "formative" isn't the same thing as "permanent." The Diary of a Teenage Girl (adapted from Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel by Marielle Heller, who also plays the lead) uncannily brings you back to that place—the piece's consciousness and viewpoint, not to mention the physical environment crafted by set design Lauren Helpern and video designer C. Andrew Bauer, take you completely inside the mind of its teenage heroine—but at the same time both Heller and directors Sarah Cameron Sunde and Rachel Eckerling create enough distance from her experiences to allow us to understand what's happening to Minnie in ways she cannot quite yet. You Are There, but yet you see in ways you couldn't as an adolescent: there's careful balance struck for the audience between inhabiting the fully realized emotional portrait of Minnie Goetze, the 15-year-old diarist and heroine, and keeping a clarity of perspective that never romanticizes or sentimentalizes what she's going through.
It's 1976, San Francisco. Minnie is in tenth grade, though she keeps getting expelled from school after school. She's keeping an audio diary, recorded on a series of cassettes, that aims to record her days "as honestly and sincerely as is possible." She's into drawing and photography. Her father isn't much in the picture, and her mom and stepfather split up shortly after moving from Philadelphia to California, so her immediate family unit is down to a younger sister (never seen) and her mom. She's really only got one friend, Kimmie, and she doesn't really know what exactly they have in common. She has a little bit of a crush on a beautiful lesbian she saw on Polk Street. Her mom has a couple of boyfriends—Monroe, a pothead in jogging shorts, and a lawyer named Michael, aka Michael Cocaine. And Minnie also has a boyfriend, kind of. Or at least she's having an affair. With Monroe, her mother's boyfriend.
Even Kimmie, who herself is not immune to affairs with inappropriate older men, can see that Monroe is somehow taking advantage of Minnie—even Minnie on some level, sometimes, knows Monroe is taking advantage of her. But Minnie's excitement, her joy, her lust, her mixture of maturity and childishness, and even her constant oscillation between being genuinely in love with Monroe, being somewhat indifferent to him, convincing herself she's using him rather than the other way around, and hating him, are painted so vividly by Heller as both playwright and performer that it becomes possible to see their relationship in ways more nuanced—and more unsettling—than simple outrage at the exploitation of a young girl. You thrill with Minnie to the pangs of her secret romance, and see why she's fallen for Monroe, who can be both attractive and charming—and then an instant later you remember Monroe is a creepy 35-year-old stoner; you see him interact with Minnie's mother, Charlotte, in their adult relationship (where both Michael Laurence as Monroe and Mariann Mayberry as Charlotte show more than a little emotional overlap with Minnie; they've got a touch of arrested adolescent still in them); and squirm at the realization of what she's really getting herself into. The level of discomfort and squirm only grows, especially later in the play as Minnie gets drawn into even more dangerous territory, and you see Charlotte, who had Minnie as a teenager herself, unable (and perhaps, after listening to Minnie's diary and learning about the relationship with Monroe, even a little unwilling) to intervene.
Now, I am not the kind of person who looks back on adolescence with a rosy glow, who remembers my teenage years as the best of my life—in fact, I'm pretty sure you couldn't pay me to relive them—which means the play can also often be more than a little uncomfortable to watch. And like any diary, the parts don't necessarily cohere into a narrative whole; the journey isn't from beginning to end of story but from fragment to fragment of Minnie's experience. There's not a strong narrative throughline, which only throws us more back inside Minnie's mind: when she's bored or frustrated or confused, often, so are we in the audience.
But the submersion into Minnie, the attention to detail in every element of the production—the absorption in this girl's psyche and her environment—are uncanny. Helpern's set surrounds you—audience and actors are enclosed together in a box dropped into the center of 3LD's space, with playing areas integrated into the seating area—in simple but evocative strokes (brown carpet everywhere, green floor pillows, big glow-in-the-dark decals on the brown walls that double as projection screens), with Minnie's world; Bauer's videos and projections bring both a window to the outside (images of San Francisco) and Minnie's artwork (drawings, photographs, imaginings). Eckerling and Sunde's staging, too, immerses you in the experience rather than maintaining a conventional distance between audience and performance; scenes and projections take place everywhere, with the actors coming and going through the same entrances the audience uses to access the space. I didn't always enjoy Diary of a Teenage Girl, but I experienced it in a way that felt almost more like a happening than a traditional piece of theatre—which felt entirely the right way to experience this play.