peerless, by Jiehae Park. Directed by Louisa Proske. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Sasha Diamond as M and Laura Sohn as L; photo: Justin Allen
(Normally, I can quote something. . .not this time, though.)
Continuing an accidental, or incidental (?), series Barrington Stage Company presents Jihae Park's play "peerless" on its St. Germain Stage in Pittsfield, MA. A series, I say, because this play about sisters, twins, who support one another's heinous agendae and yet still vie for the same thing, is in the vein of the company's biggest transfer hit, "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," a musical about youngsters driven to succeed at any cost. Both plays deal with youthful obsession. Both lead to violence and semi-controlled depression. In "...Spelling Bee" there was an awkward charm to the whole thing but in this new play there is no charm, except an evil or wicked charm, imposed on these characters.
The twins have no names. They are just called L (Laura Sohn) and M (Sasha Diamond). These twins are obsessed with achieving high marks, of controlling their social environment and in getting into the best school with the best program on the best ticket. All in all, not bad goals. However one has agreed to hold back a year in school so that her sister can achieve the latter goal first, then bring her sister in under family preference rules. This tells us that being driven is nothing new for these teenagers; this plan stretches back, way back, to almost pre-school years. It also lets us know that we are dealing with monsters here, obsessives who will not be stopped.
There are only students in this play, no gratuitous adults. Ethan Dubin plays a nerd whose personal limits are set by a peanut allergy and a set of good grades. When the girls discover he has won the single admissions place at the special college they want they dress up and go after him like two rampaging Yvonne DeCarlos back in the old days of movies about obsessive women. They vamp him into a sort of submission, remove him from the picture and obtain his place. One of them is pleased and the other somewhat remorseful. This personality division is what sets the course for the balance of the play and if a bumpy road is your cup of tea then this is the play for you.
Dubin does a great job playing the kid for whom no girlfried is as good as having many of them. At least there are no decisions to be made this way and he is content with his lot. Dubin does a great job as the helpless idiot savant whose unsuspicious nature is his own undoing. He is a male Jane Eyre, really, never seeing the reality for what it is until the only possible solution is flight when it is too late. It's a terrific performance of a keystone role.
Ronald Alexander Peet plays a BF and he plays the role with a swaggering ego that lets him be real now and then and puffed up now and then. He is M's confidante but he never really gets her. When she is remorseful, temporarily, he is almost at a complete loss, incapable of being of help and Peet plays this swings scene with an utter realism that his role has otherwise kept him from.
Adina Verson handles her two roles especially well. As Dirty Girl is genuinely horrific, frightening and a menace to the sisters though L seems to be obsessed with her and her garbage pail philosophy. As Preppy Girl she is pert, pretty and, well, not so petite. She is every college boy's first term dreamgirl. Verson takes both roles to their extremes in her brief scenes and makes them both memorable.
Diamond and Sohn are absolutely mesmerizing. Watching each alone is wonderful but when they are together, twinning, they are so very dynamic that you begin to be wary, afraid they might break. Their twinship is deserving of a black and white film noir, it is so very much a dark pair of performances in such a dark play.
Louisa Proske, the director, has taken difficult topics and turned them into dynamic performances which is no mean task when the first scene basically establishes a frenetic pace and a rigidly attitudinal single mindset which argues with itself in a way that moves from comic to tragic in a matter of minutes. Though not a comedy it has some genuinely funny moments.
All of this takes place on one of the largest and most interesting sets, designd by John McDermott. The costumes by Elivia Bovenzi are perfect for the people and Oliver Watson's interesting lighting design sometimes give us the advantage over the tech crew as we watch a full set change happen. Sound Designer Jeremy S. Bloom delivers too much volume.
While I cannot wholeheartedly recommend this play, I can tell you I was never bored, always fascinated and occasionally horrified by what I saw and heard. There is so much excellent talent on stage that it's hard not to send you off to see them; it's just that they are so not nice, these non-musical obsessives, that I am reluctant to keep folks hopping off before its too late. Perhaps that is the key, see this play before its too late if like obsessive kids and don't mind a whopping big dose of hatred, anger, passionate desire and non-stop trains crashing into stalled cars. It's a bit like that, really.
Adina Verson as Dirty Girl; photo: Justin Allen
Laura Sohn and Sasha Diamond; photo: Justin Allen
Sasha Diamond and Ronald Alexander Peet; photo: Justin Allen
peerless runs through August 6 on the St. Germain Stage at Barrington Stage Company's Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center at 36 Linden Street, Pittsfield, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-236-8888 or go on line to barringtonstageco.org.