by: Michael Bracken
A sea of AstroTurf. That’s the first thing you notice at Engagements at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre. Part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown series, Lucy Teitler’s comedy has a stage completely awash in glaringly green pretend grass, which even goes up the walls until it’s stopped by molding. You wonder why scenic designer Wilson Chin has chosen to create a playing space that’s so artificial. Maybe it’s because artifice reigns supreme in Engagements, so an AstroTurf lawn feels right at home.
That’s lawn as in lawn parties, or more precisely, engagement lawn parties, where the play begins, ends, and spends an awful lot of time in between. Lauren (Ana Nogueira), less at home than the fake verdure, starts things off with a drink in one hand and a microphone in the other. The mic serves as a proxy for a confessional. She talks into it freely, knowing that the other characters can’t hear her, which is a good thing since the sins she confesses are theirs, not hers.
She first criticizes her best friend, Allison (Jennifer Kim), standing far upstage, with only her back visible. Lauren’s complaints about Allison are pretty benign: she’s too beautiful, does everything just too right, has perfect hair. Allison’s only real fault is talking to her own boyfriend at an engagement party, which, per Lauren, is downright rude.
Lauren’s view of Mark (Michael Stahl-David), Allison’s boyfriend, is in a different domain. He’s “so mediocre it’s almost ostentatious,” and when she finds herself alone with him, she tells him Allison’s too good for him. She throws out a couple of more barbs and then cynically suggests he’s going to ask to have sex with her right under the nose of his girlfriend and her best friend. He takes her up on her dare, and they’re soon going at it behind the gazebo.
Lauren says she’s always wanted him and calls him beautiful. Is she lying or was she lying earlier? It almost doesn’t matter. She creates whatever reality works for her at a given moment and probably doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. Mark does the same but with a higher level of self-awareness. He’s as phony as the phony grass and loves it.
For Lauren, Mark was a one-time fling, but he wants more. He sends Lauren anonymous gifts, like a vibrator. Enter Lauren’s houseguests, cousin Catherine (Brooke Weisman) and her boyfriend, Ryan (Omar Maskati). Ryan, at Lauren’s request, opens the next gift, “crotchless” red panties.
Nogueira makes Lauren likable, no mean feat given that Lauren never has a nice thing to say about anyone and lies on cue. Stahl-David’s Mark is less sympathetic, sporting the veneer of a nice guy, hiding the snake underneath. She lies as a defense mechanism; he lies with an agenda. Lauren lies even to herself, one reason it’s hard to know if she’s telling the truth. Nogueira explores the scared little girl underneath the high gloss sheen.
Playwright Teitler gives Lauren a lot of funny lines, and Nogueira delivers them with just the right amount of bravado and self-doubt. Teitler’s concept – a comedy that takes place almost entirely at engagement parties – is a clever one. Engagements cruises along at a clipper pace when it sticks to its basic premise, but when it tries to work in Ryan and Catherine it slows to a crawl.
They just don’t fit in. It’s like Forrest Gump in a Noel Coward play. The witty banter becomes a one-way street, making it a lot less witty. Director Kimberly Senior has not figured out how to attain equilibrium when Ryan and Catherine are onstage.
Jennifer Kim’s Allison is an excellent straight woman to Lauren and Mark. And Stahl-David’s Mark is charmingly devoid of substance. At its best, Engagements is outrageously funny, but as it progresses it shows less and less of its best.
Through August 20th at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre (2162 Broadway at 76th Street). 90 minutes, no intermission. www.2st.com
Photos: Joan Marcus