"When a famous person crashes their plane or skis into a tree, everyone cares," muses one of the two nihilist heroines of US Drag, a new play by Louisville Festival playwright Gina Gionfriddo, now playing at Off-Broadway's Beckett Theater. The heroines, cute, dolled-up, unemployed and cynical recent college grads Angela (Tanya Fischer) and Alison (Lisa Joyce), take on New York City, determined to achieve fame, fortune, or, at the very least, their monthly rent on the room they are subletting from socially inept Wall Street broker Ned (Matthew Stadelman). Angela and Alison take a picaresque tour of an absurdist underworld that's definitely recognizable in our own world. Picked up at a bar by wealthy trustafarian and disturbingly obsessed amateur crime historian James (James Martinez), they find out that the police have offered a $10,000 award for a serial attacker’s capture. They turn bounty hunters, and join an awareness-raising group called S.A.F.E., whose leader Evan (Lucas Papaelias) warns people to stay safe by refusing to help strangers, under any circumstances.
Meanwhile, Angela is courted by egotistical and cruelly inventive "creative nonfiction" writer Christopher -- a wannabe Dave Eggers. Alison, disturbed by a dream, decides that she must find a husband immediately, and goes after the character who most should remain single in the interest of public safety.
Gionfriddo explores a popular theme in the contemporary theatre: spoiled, unemployed middle-class beautiful young things behaving amorally (by the author's standards) in the Big Apple. Popularized in Jonathan Larson's cult Broadway musical Rent, the subject also dominates Michael Domitrovich's Artfuckers, currently running Off-Broadway at the Daryl Roth. Gionfriddo adds nothing new to the tradition. Angela and Alison carp about women who buy "thirty-five dollar mascara and drink two lattes a day"; Christopher claims that his "creative nonfiction" is true because his parents abused him "symbolically."
Gionfriddo saves her sharpest barbs for self-proclaimed activists whose activism constitutes mere ego-aggrandizement, bereft of any genuine concern for the victimized or oppressed. James stalks crime victims whose names he finds in the news in order to offer them consolation.
Evan tells S.A.F.E. that apprehending the attacker is not their mission. When the characters watch a didactic, downbeat documentary about refugees, Alison decides it would be far better if the "massacre" were accompanied by music by Nine Inch Nails.
The costumes, by Emily Rebholz, playfully mimic the "trendy" apparel of the New York young, wealthy, and pretentious. Trip Cullman's direction is adequate, though in some scenes characters talk while lined up in a horizontal row, forced into presentational poses, and a transition in which one of the heroines strips and changes costume onstage right next to the exit seems unsupported by thematic, plot, or practical demands.
Sandra Goldmark's set is dominated by several lampshade-covered lights that jut horizontally from the upper reaches of the upstage wall, reminiscent of the furniture-museum set of Moises Kaufman's production of Doug Wright's I Am My Own Wife. The purpose of these lampshades is not clear, but they look very whimsical when they turn on and off in unison.
Underscoring US Drag is Gionfriddo's conviction that in our society, or perhaps only in Manhattan, empathy is uncommon and unpopular. This is stated — or, rather, overstated — throughout the play. "A good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan," preaches Evan to S.A.F.E. When Angela first meets Christopher, he signs a copy of his book and admits that it will only be worth much when he is dead. "How much?" she asks, comically calculating her potential profit.
"A sociopath lacks the capacity to empathize. The only pain they notice is their own,” someone says, informing the audience unambiguously that most of the characters are sociopaths. This didacticism causes the play to ramble on the same track without ever developing or allowing the audience to puzzle anything out for themselves.
More problematically, Angela and Alison are only vaguely defined characters, with costume changes more complex than their changes in outlook and character. The world they inhabit is interesting, but they are its twin black hole, a vacuous vacuum that sucks all life and energy away.
Producing company The Stage Farm's motto is "we make plays for play-haters." Possibly, then, US Drag will appeal to people who wish to see characters who are stock types, and hear clearly stated messages. If you go to the theatre because you like theatre, because, at its best, it challenges your horizons and you appreciate a challenge, you might find US Drag a bit of a drag.
However, in the real New York City just as in Gionfriddo's version, there are all types of people. If US Drag gets the "theatre-haters" into the Beckett Theatre, Stage Farm will have accomplished the kind of altruistic act that is so sadly absent from Angela and Alison's world.