Tuesday, January 24, 2012

American Girls: Who Would Jesus Do?

First off, this is not the American Girl Revue, but rather my review of American Girls.  Anyone looking for information on children's theatre about historical dolls should look elsewhere.

Or should they?  The young women of America today are caught in a whirlwind of conflicting messages from the media.  When socialites are glorified for not very much other than being rich and having a sex tape, and Christian role models are appearing scantily clad or having sex scandals, what's a girl got to do to get famous?
That's the dilemma explored in American Girls, the new play by Hilary Bettis.  Amanda (Ms. Bettis) and Katie (Kira Sternbach) are two rather unpopular middle school girls from Iowa who decide to get fake IDs and enter a dance competition they saw an ad for in the paper.  Of course the competition is an amateur stripper's night, and the two ditch their Hello Kitty gear and retainers and dance in their scanties for a bunch of drooling men.  They get the card of a "Hollywood agent", who brings them back to his place for a "screen test", which turns out to be an amateur porn flick.  A $500 later, they're excited and waiting for news of their big break. When bits of their screen test show up on YouTube and the girls get picked up by the cops, they get their story straight- they were raped.  This leads to an appearance on an Oprah-like talk show, where the girls discuss their ordeal and become famous.
Bettis and Sternbach are easily convincing as celebrity-obsessed 14-year-olds who think that all their dreams will come true if they can just get famous and show all the popular girls how it's done.
One of the most interesting things about the piece is that the audience is never sure just how calculated the girls' moves are.  Their na๏ve choices aren't always clear, but that's part of the story.  Even while decrying women who are famous for being famous and therefore aren't "real" celebrities, they gleefully (though not without some angst) trot down the same path to easy notoriety, assuring themselves that God made them beautiful, therefore stripping is What Jesus Would Do: "This is how I look at it – Jesus would not have made us as hot as we are if He didn't have a plan for us".
Bettis' dialogue is note-perfect, capturing the hilariously banal concerns of day-to-day school life, as well as the girls hunger for fame.  Celebrity names are dropped right and left, from Paris Hilton to Miley Cyrus to Zac Efron.  An intriguing staging is to have Amanda obsessed with her new camcorder, recording most of the events, some of which are shown on television screens ranged around the stage, continuing the story as the live girls change costumes; here more actors appear: Maxwell Zener as the smarmy "Hollywood agent" Frank Miller (the name an amusing shout-out to the whore-obsessed graphic novelist); and the hilarious Traci Hovel as talk show host Dr. Opal Banks.  Disembodied voices are also provided by Scott Johnson, Adam Hirsch, Mark Chin, and Sydney Cohen.
Although the show is only 70 minutes, a few of the scenes feel overlong, but it's a great first play from Bettis. The action is kept moving by director Jeff Cohen. The set design by Ryan Elliot Kravetz is a abstract cross and a carpeted plinth, giving an ecclesiastic feel.  Lighting design by Evan Purcell is impressive, going from police interrogation lights to backlit stripper heat.  Costumes by Gail Cooper-Hecht perfectly capture the awkward middle school ages as well as the meretricious costumes the girls assume for their "dance competition".  Painfully earnest Christian rock is the pre-show to get the audience in the mood.
The show contains mature subject matter, and is not suitable for children.
American Girls
The 45th Street Theater
354 W. 45th Street (between 8th & 9th Avenues)
Wed-Fri 8pm, Saturday 2pm and 8pm, Sunday 5pm
Tickets $55 at Smarttix.com or 212-868-4444
Rush tickets available day of performance.

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