Monday, September 10, 2007

Review of "Sweetie Pie," published by EDGE Philadelphia

Many playwrights dream of rewriting a Greek tragedy, updating the plot and forces of fate to the conditions of modern life. Adapting the plot becomes a minor problem, altering the characters and storyline to fit contemporary life. The hard part lies in generating a tragic effect-motivating the plot and characters in such a way that the audience experiences a sort of terror and despair at the end of the play.

Yet this is what Philadelphia playwright Madi Distefano attempts in Sweetie Pie-a 21st century punk rock retelling of Sophocles Oedipus (with an early smattering of Romeo and Juliet to kick start the action).

In Sweetie Pie, seventeen-year old lovers Joey (Tobias Segal) and Barbara (Melissa Lynch) inhabit the same precocious world of their contemporaries, with a slight twist: she’s the rebellious daughter of a rich, powerful (corporate? mafia?) tyrant, he’s a runaway living in an abandoned warehouse in Metro City. Strangely enough, she’s still concerned enough about Joey’s future to insist that he get a job to support her-after all, she’s pregnant-but not so pregnant as to take hits off a pipe (crack? pot?) in between her persistent nagging.

Nonetheless, they’re both smart enough to realize that what they’ve found is The Real Thing, and they make a vow, cutting, then tying their wrists together to exchange blood in a pledge to always stay together. Dad (Tom Tansey) finds out, locks Babs in the basement for nine months, has the baby disposed of, and gives Joey ten grand to leave town on a funded, though permanent exile. Joey leaves reluctantly, reciting his pledge to find Barbara again and live out their lives together.

Of course, this is where the problem begins: no one believes in vows (or believes that others will uphold them) enough to maintain them over thousands of miles and two decades, especially when you never hear from the guy again. And sure enough, sixteen years later (a very awkward, poorly effected transition), Barbara, now Bebe (Distefano), has grown into a minor local punk rock celebrity, attracting runaways as groupies, and moving on with her life, at least where new lovers are concerned.

One of these young hangers-on is Mark (Segal, double-cast), who, in classic Oedipal style, falls for this idealized version of womanhood (for him at least), and when she rebuffs him, he (through sheer passion, since that’s how it’s done, of course), masters the guitar and wins her admiration in due course. Bebe takes him under her wings, produces his first album into a huge success, he becomes the type of famous she always wanted for herself, and half the Oedipal prophesy (never made in Sweetie Pie though) comes true-as the son’s now sleeping with his mom.

Meanwhile, Joey (Tansey, also double cast), roams the land, writing songs and performing self-deprecating open mic night comedy about how miserable he is without the young girl he still loves. Eventually, he straggles back to Metro City, and encounters Bebe on a fire escape outside a club. She spurns him for leaving, he accosts her for going on without him, and Mark witnesses the tail end of it, enraged enough to fulfill part two, and make his way down the iron railing to knife his (unbeknownst to him) father.

An investigative journalist pries too deeply into events, uncovers Mark’s past (abandonment in a trashcan), and Bebe begins to put two-and-two together (which still requires the ad hoc device of a dream to become wholly clear). Though able to cope with a life of frustrated ambition, she nonetheless kills herself during a concert, at the subconscious suggestion (no proof) that she’s, well, with her son. Mark races in, sees the corpse, and having enough (of this play?), gouges his eyes out to see no more.

Faithful to the plot? Absolutely, and a brilliant updating at that, intriguing and capturing my attention throughout-though mostly to see how Distefano pulled off all of Sophocles elements (and I loved seeing her well-integrated chorus in a modern play).

Entertaining? Wildly so at times, and terrifically funny, especially whenever Tom Tansey wandered across the stage, either picking born-to-lose fights with drunks, or performing (if that’s the right word) songs about the emptiness of his life without Barbara. Moreover, Lynch gives the very image of bulldog-like tenacity in her teenage rebel, and Segal’s Young Joey is humorously pathetic enough in his whiny playing against her.

But tragic? Unfortunately not. Too much tongue-in-cheek humor spoiled the tragedy, the one aspect I thought Distefano was really shooting for in her play. There’s nothing wrong with laughing at misery on stage, half of the theatre (comedy) is predicated on that notion. However, Distefano’s play, and John Clancy’s direction failed to make an overall tragedy out of the script.

(Which is why I couldn’t treat this review any differently than I did.)

If only both of them had taken this play either more seriously (or less so). Clancy could have succeeded far more in engendering an overall tragic effect if he had treated the material with greater sincerity-not leaving out the comedy, but not letting it become over-the-top either. Clearly, he could’ve gotten more out of Distefano’s portrayal of Bebe as well. She does a great job muddling her response while playing a woman strung out on booze and Xanex, but by not displaying real emotions when faced with Joey’s death (or even in her envy of Mark’s success), she lessens the impact of her play’s tragic attempt.

Great use of language dominates the script, both in the individual actor’s lines (Barbara’s Father threatening young Joey by spitting out, "you will pay the price of being a teenage boy with a cock"), and in the chorus, who describe events as "burning like hot cum on a whore’s stomach."

But the language never translates into tragedy either-for which some loss, or sense of inevitability, or set of decisions that could’ve been altered but weren’t, is necessary. Along the way, Distefano tries to insert at least four different attempts at this into her script, but they’re either inconsistent or underdeveloped, no matter how poignantly written or well effected by the chorus.

For whatever it is, Sweetie Pie isn’t a tragedy. Someone has to care, or see themselves in these people for that to happen. In Sophocles version, he almost made it easy for himself-picking an adored King in time of crisis, blinded only by his overly confident arrogance toward the world. When a Greek audience saw that the gods laid low someone so noble, using him almost for sport in the fulfillment of fate, there was reason for everyone in the audience to feel terror and woe.

However, in Sweetie Pie, Distefano chose a pair of junkies, inhabiting a subterranean offshoot of what’s already a marginal subculture. Certainly, people identify with their story-particularly the young lover episode that began her play. But she develops no real sense of loss, has it played poorly by both herself and Segal (as Mark), and litters the script with too many jokes. In the end, the notion that Joey’s, Mark’s, and Barbara’s lives constitute a tragedy falls far too short of believability

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