Oh to be young and out in the world today! For the twenty-somethings in Lucy Teitler’s new play “Engagements,” now enjoying its world premiere at the Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfifeld, Mass., where it opened on Wednesday, August 18, life should be filled with plenty of possibilities. Instead, it’s filled with the constant pull of traditional expectations and the disconnects of a generation more used to communicating via text than in person. The end result seems to be, at least in the comfortably upscale community depicted by Teitler, a lot of stunted growth and a failure to realize exactly what one does to receive from life.
If this sounds too heady or serious, don’t fret. Teitler is too wise of a playwright to explore these issues from an exclusively clinical perspective. Instead, she infuses her play with plenty of humor, predominantly through the characters’ own actions and disappointments. Teitler is not necessarily laughing at or even with the characters she has created, but allowing the humor to ironically grow out the circumstances in which they find themselves and into the roles they are expected to play.
None more so than Lauren, who emerges as the wary protagonist of the evening, a so-called good girl who’s majored in Victorian History and is now struggling to establish an identity in her home town. As played by the delectable Amanda Quaid, Lauren is a mass of contradictions, publicly confident, internally lonely, pugnacious but retiring, tempting but rejecting, alluring and resentful. It’s clear that her life has included quite a few hurts and scars that her sensitive soul has yet to process, so that she continues to fear intimacy while seeking solutions to her social isolation. Quaid handles all these variations on Lauren’s personality with aplomb, making it possible to accept to accept and understand her character’s often abrupt and unexpected actions, say giving in to the charms of her best friend’s wandering fiancé.
Teitler presents us with a world in which hooking up is a time passing, strings-free encounter, that leaves no room for either romance or nostalgia. It’s a world in which you are responsible for your own happiness, so tradition be damned and pursue what you like. Except that at its heart, this is not that world. Why else would Teitler, or was it the work’s able director and collaborator, Louisa Proska, place a large, bright Victorian love seat in nearly every scene. The influence of the Victorian era can be discerned throughout the play, providing a refuge from the new mores of the 21st century but also getting in the way of characters achieving personal fulfillment. In some ways, Teitler’s play can be seen as sweeping the last vestiges of the Victorian era out the door.
Although Lauren is the Victorian scholar, perhaps no one is more oppressed by the detritus of that confining era than her best friend and confidante, Alison, played with delicious blond entitlement by Kate LoPrest. Alison is about to get engaged, or may recently have gotten engaged, to the handsome, Country Club bred Mark, played with smarmy self-confidence mixed with just a tad of sensitivity by Robert David Grant. Alison is enamored of the round of the elegant suburban Boston engagement parties that comprise most of the scenes in Teitler’s play, obviously looking forward to her own in this very room. LoPrest shows how much Alison enjoys playing these games and just how serious she takes them, while others seem to exhibit a more cavalier attitude. She never lowers Alison to a dumb blond status, and lets us glimpse how much she yearns for acceptance into this society.
Contrast this with Lauren’s unexpected and less well-off houseguests, a distant cousin Catherine, played to small-town exuberant innocence by the diminutive Phoebe Strole and her uber-progressive grad school boyfriend, Ryan, played to annoying and exasperating perfection by Adam Gerber, whose personally–derived political and intellectual superiority sets him apart from those foolish enough to want to participate in such foregone societal rituals. He takes for granted Catherine’s worshipful nature, totally oblivious to her own deep-seated desire to get married, as evidenced in a fateful scene in which Strole’s eyes and forehead say all that is necessary about her initial excitement then ultimate disappointment when she assumes Ryan is preparing to propose.
Teitler has the knack of taking her plot in slightly unexpected directions which keeps this whole exercise rather refreshing throughout its 90-minute length. She also allows three of her characters to directly address the audience, as if confiding or trying to explain their behavior or feelings. These provide some insight into these characters’ actions and, again, add a few interesting quirks to the proceedings. As a result, the audience does tend to become close to the two characters who engage in these asides most frequently, Lauren and Ryan, the latter of whom Gerber invests with a frantically naïve and judgmental enthusiasm as he tries to solve a mystery and save someone for whom he won’t admit he has feelings for fall prey to a lecherous heel.
Brian Prather has provided a lush green country club set complete with ivy crawling pillars that line the back of the set (and behind which characters can conveniently hide). He’s also created a dark booth on the left side of the stage that plays a gazebo in which certain assignations can occur or be secretly witnessed. The set can believably transform itself into Lauren’s apartment with the addition of that Victorian love seat and a few other details, all allowing Proske’s direction to move the play sleekly from one party to the next, with the occasional detour back to the apartment.
Beth Goldenberg has designed a series of cocktail dresses and high toned jackets for the Country Club set, while dressing her academics in the deliberately stark outfits that are equally utilized to make a statement. Yi Zhao’s lighting design well serves the needs of the various engagement parties and skillfully accommodates the transitions between scenes.
The humor is unusual and its characters, for the most part, skew more toward the unlikeable side of the scale, although they are all amusing all of the time. They are also quite believable—as they easily remind you of young people (and actually quite a few older people) you may have run into throughout your lives. In the end, no one is with the person you would assume they would be with, especially if this were an Edith Wharton or Henry James novel. But these are modern times, and Victoriana has been thrown to the wolves, and playwright Teitler sets her flag in the brave new world of the 21st century in which relationships, connections, and even plays themselves, fly in the face of traditional expectations.
“Engagements” runs through August 30 on the St. Germain Stage at the Barrington Stage Company. For information and tickets, call the Box Office at 413.236.8888 or visit the theater’s website at www.barringtonstageco.org.