Very Bad Words
nytheatre.com review by Taylor Shann
August 10, 2013
Jacob Presson’s Very Bad Words reminded me very much, in both title and spirit, of the pitch black comedy film Very Bad Things. How you feel about one will gauge how you feel about the other. Many people find the movie funny, and many people in the audience (some of whom, based on the cheering at the beginning, were friends and family of the cast) were laughing. For both, I was so appalled by how the material was handled that there was little left to do but admire the skill of the actors committing to their roles.
The comparisons are easy to draw. Both stories involve an accidental bad act followed by an intentional bad act that results in death. Both have a charismatic sociopath leading the otherwise neutral characters to double down on their evil acts, and then to hold the line against the guilt and fear that follow. And both feature scene after scene of misogynist and racist dialogue, which walks the tightrope between offensive and funny and falls off after about ten minutes. It’s one thing to have a clearly chavenistic character insist “I’m not a misogynist,” it’s another to have him rattle off one derogatory insult after another and leave his words hanging in the air, unanswered.
The play only has three onstage characters: Will, (PJ Adzima), Taylor (Olivia Macklin) and Steve (Adam Warwinsky). They are over-achieving and over-prilvedged seniors at an unnamed Masachusetts high school, destined for college and future employment as that boss you hate. After the prologue (a trio of confusingly cut together monologues), the action starts with our three kids in the dean’s office. They’re in trouble for using derogatory slurs against an out-of-the-closet student, although their actions seem born in ignorance, not hatred. Our trio is punished and forced to write apology letters, and they decide to get even. We never meet the gay student, but we do get to see his locker, which the three vandalize with the word ‘faggot’ in pink paint. We see them do this in great detail while wearing masks and hoodies, afterwards they cackle in revelry and roll a giant joint. The locker, and its freshly painted insult, stays on stage for the rest of the play.
I don’t know if this was required by the script, or the choice of the director Jake Ahlquist. I do know that it is fatal, as there are many scenes and exchanges that follow that are supposed to draw laughs, which were impossible for me as I kept staring at that damn locker. Imagine a comedy about southern good ol’boys. Now imagine how funny it would or could be if a noose was hanging onstage during the entirety of the run. That’s how I felt. Nothing was funny after that, especially after events predictably spiral downward towards frantic 911 calls and school crisis.
I know, I know. The idea is that we are supposed to see these people for what they are: type-A, tunnel-vision careerist, amoral jerks who are future leaders of the world’s hedge funds. We’re not supposed to like them. We are supposed to realize that we have met the enemy, and they are us. Personally, after the initial homophobic rants shot followed by a hate crime chaser, I was done with them. They were in such a deep hole, no amount of monologue soul searching about how awful their parents are could dig them out of it.
Which is a shame, because each of the actors commit entirely to their roles. Olivia Macklin channels her inner Tracy Flick to give her Taylor a distinctive obsessive streak, and she gets a nice speech about how she sees her future. Adam Warwinsky has a bigger challenge as Steve, who is somehow a weak nerd, a pothead, valedictorian but also incredibly buff. However, he does effectively communicate how suddenly developing a conscience after a horrible deed can offer little comfort when faced with amoral co-conspirators. The standout is PJ Adzima, who is so charming as Will you almost forget that the character is a racist, homophobic misogynist sociopath. He’s the one who says “I’m not a misogynist,” early on, and then proceeds to define the term for Steve, only to follow it up with reasons why women should never be in charge because you can’t trust something that “bleeds for seven days and doesn’t die.” He’s so good at being such a jerk that someone should revive In the Company of Men immediately so that they can cast him in it.
This is a polished show for fringeNYC. The sets are effective, the lighting is accomplished, and the director creates interesting visual images. Maybe this material would work better as a movie, where the locker wouldn’t sit on stage for the entire hour and the over-use of music and smash cues would make more sense. (Cinematic moments always ‘look cool’ on stage, but they also pull one out of the reality of the scene and underline that we are, in fact, watching a play.) In a film we could also see other people in this world, people who would mirror our horror at these little monsters.
But no, all we get are these three. Their motivations for their actions are delusional at best. Will keeps saying, “We just wanted to give him a taste of his own medicine!” Which is what, exactly? When called out on their casual homophobia, the solution is to adopt Nazi tactics? Yes, these characters are pushed too hard by their (offstage) parents, but so what? They still have all the power, and when their victim tries to use what little leverage he has, they crush him for it.
It’s also telling that for all of the spirited discussion about how they’re not actually homophoic, the slur really could have been anything. This script could have been changed to a painted racial slur, or a swastika, the plot could have unfolded exactly the same way. That’s how little it really matters who it is they pick on, and why. It’s more about the characters trying to get out of any personal responsibility for anything they do. Of course, it’s hard to focus on that when that locker keeps staring you in the face with pure, naked hatred. Which is the point, I guess.
The only idea that the play clearly communicates is this: the kids aren’t alright. These assholes are going to run the world one day, if they don’t already. Playwright Jacob Presson clearly has no qualms about showing who these people are, and even if you don't think he has written a good play, he has written a bold one.
Theater should provoke its audience, and sometimes offend them and shock them out of their complacency. In that respect, Very Bad Words is a success.