Commedia dell Smartass
nytheatre.com review by Ross Peabody
September 12, 2005
On first blush, Sonya Sobieski’s new play Commedia dell Smartass shouldn’t be a play that works, but thank God for New Georges, and their ability to see that it could.
Billed as an eccentric comedy featuring an overachieving Girl Scout who wants to get into a good college, a Fencer who reads Machiavelli, a Clown of ambiguous gender, and a guy named Henry, Commedia explores the typical archetypes and power plays of high school. And it does so in stellar fashion.
From the first moment of the show, when Nurit Monacelli’s playful Clown steps onto the stage to play the violin, followed soon after by the high school jock (a fencer!?!) and his schlubby geek friend Henry, you know that Sobieski is looking at the world of high school in a very special way. Commedia is rife with the trappings of the teen genre: bets to get someone to kiss you (but you fall in love instead), betrayal, parties that only the cool can attend, and the requisite final scene when we see that everything can never be the same again, but sadly, probably will. It has the joie de vivre and wide-eyed optimism of youth, sweetened by the bitterness of darker, underlying themes (that, thankfully, Sobieski treads very lightly upon—this is not a heavy play, nor is it an issue play).
It's a familiar enough story, both for those who love John Hughes and those who love Carlo Goldini. Dominant male A convinces sweet but inept male B to pursue beautiful female C, in this case through a masculinity-challenging but friendly bet. Upon having the first date, our normal fellow is in love with our beautiful young lady, and she with her unlikely paramour. Our alpha male, however, has planned this all along, and wants young lady C for himself. As he wreaks havoc on this budding relationship through manipulation and betrayal, the play unfolds in brutal and funny fashion, finally arriving at a happy but melancholic ending. And all the while the real outsider—call this character Pierrot or Ducky or just Clown—becomes the confidant, the friend, the advisor, the punching bag, and, ultimately, the one who survives, self intact.
As an inveterate fan of '80s teen movies, I went into this understandably skeptical. Many have tried, on both stage and screen, to emulate the universality, the angst, and the pure naiveté that John Hughes and his Brat Pack created so memorably 20 years ago, and generally they've failed miserably. Sobieski, along with her whimsically precise director Jean Randich, have discovered an equation for success in a couple of unlikely places: contemporary theatrical style and commedia dell'arte.
After seeing the show it seems like the most obvious of parallels. Teen flicks succeed through the use of universal stock characters, a trait specifically shared with traditional commedia. Likewise, both formulas require a stable of familiar stories and activities that an audience not only expects, but actively relates to. Most importantly, Sobieski and Randich take their characters seriously. They do not condescend, nor do they treat this as satire, and this lends the work the earnestness and honesty necessary for success.
However, it takes more than commonality of genre for this effort to succeed. There should be a reason for it to be in the theatre and not onscreen. That reason is spelled out in Randich’s stylized (but not overly so) direction, coupled with a quartet of actors who are at times spellbinding, at times heart-wrenchingly hilarious and angsty 16-year-olds, at times horribly vicious, and always terrific in their respective roles. Granted, Randich is not using traditional mask or bouffon work (with the exception of Clown, whose reasons for being so seemingly anachronistic are perfectly suited to the themes of the play) to make the connection between "commedia" and "smartass" (thank goodness), but she does capitalize on the fact that Sobieski has used the structure of commedia plays in order to allow the actors some great over-the-top asides and to thrust the play from a "kids being kids, can't they be mean" sensibility into the realm of allegory, another trait that this show shares in its bones with its predecessors.
Randich knows when to use style and when to let the script and the actors do the talking, and she balances these two sides with a precise and thoughtful love of the material.
Everyone involved in this production deserves accolades. Sue Rees’s minimalist playground of a set, coupled with Garin Marschall’s lights, manage to implicitly create every physical scenario to such a degree that, in my mind's eye, I recall every locale in distinct detail. No small feat without even a single scene change. Daniel Urlie’s costumes reflect both the breezy whimsy of the play and its more naturalistic setting.
It is the director, and her actors, however, who really bring the life to this play: Jessi Campbell’s Girl Scout who bursts into tears because her beauty makes the drug addicts at the halfway house hate themselves; Jesse Hooker’s evilly comic James Spader impression; Debargo Sanyal’s twitchy, insecure, and wildly endearing Henry; and Monacelli’s amusing, touching, and ultimately sad Clown. Together they capture the silliness and difficulty of teen tribulations, in a show that is one of the most satisfying larks that I’ve been present for in quite some time.