Review by: Bre Northrup
This year’s 19th annual New York International Fringe Festival showcased a new musical written and performed by undergraduates at Yale University. Under: A New Musical written by rising Yale senior Monica Hannush, and directed by rising Yale junior Alex Cadena, follows the story of Serena (Michaela Murphy) through two related periods of her life enacted on opposing sides of the stage: one being Serena’s time in the Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital, and the other being the year prior to her admittance into the ward. Under sheds light on the pressure of the academically privileged to uphold the standard of perfection. In light of the recent Yale suicide in May of this year, Under begins to scratch the surface of the overwhelming strain put upon the students of Ivy League institutions.
The play began with a disclaimer from the house manager, which suggested that the play is semi-autobiographical. In an interview with Call Me Adam, Hannush offers advice to playwrights saying- “Don’t ever think that your story isn’t worth telling, or that your own experiences aren’t worth mining for inspiration.”
With this disclaimer aside, the play focussed on the singular narrative of the protagonist, and left the secondary characters underdeveloped.
For example, in the psychiatric facility, Serena befriends bad-boy Billy McConnell (Aaron McAleavey) who opens the show with the line “Where are my fucking meds?” His character functions as a window into the underprivileged, lower-middle class, New Haven residents (his character works at the local Walgreens). That being established, the audience never learns what precisely landed Billy into the institution, nor does the audience get insight about Billy as a person (other than his dabbling with drugs and a brief mentioning of his complicated relationship to his parents). The show could benefit from a deeper investigation of Billy, and other secondary characters, in order to both add to Serena’s complex psyche and to form the overarching narrative of the play itself.
Michaela Murphy played Serena’s character with an enthusiastic charm. There is a meta scene in the play in which Serena discusses writing a play based on her college experience with her classmate Mark (Jordan Schroeder). Mark is abhorred by this idea, as he feels that his experiences, his narrative, his personal struggles do not belong to Serena, nor should they act as means to make her successful. In this scene, Serena offers something along the lines of “Don’t worry, my character is not likable either.” This line was striking, because it seems to be a meta reference to the complex and confusing nature of the character Serena herself. Serena, much like any new college student, is trying to discover what makes her unique, or in a deeper sense, why she matters. Her character is called a pathological liar, and an attention seeker- which are two intrinsically unlikeable traits. Murphy, however, plays Serena with such charm and sincerity, that these flaws were often excused. It is no easy feat to play a character that is set up to be disliked, particularly when said character is the protagonist. Murphy portrayed Serena with skill and relatability.
It is imperative to also address the success of the music within the piece, which is composed by Yale student Julian Drucker, with lyrics written by Monica Hannush. Standout songs include power ballad “So Fucking Special” about the struggle to discover what makes one unique in a college setting, “So Easy to Lie” about Serena’s tendency to fabricate, and “That’s A Lot to Swallow,” which is a double entendre for the pill intake at the psychiatric facility, and the metaphor of Yale being a lot to handle.
Despite a few technical errors (projection screen fumbles), the cast and onstage band did not sweat. Special kudos must go to the band members who played the rock-musical-esque songs with ease.
Under: A New Musical was performed with the Fringe Festival at Theatre 80 at 80 St. Marks Place (between First and Second Ave) www.under-a-new-musical.com