Burnfield is a town like any other, perhaps like every other. It is 1994, and a half-dozen or so middle-class white kids are struggling to carve out some sort of meaning and sense of identity beyond the homogenous land of shopping malls and restaurant chains that is their cultural inheritance. Mostly, they loiter outside the Food Mart drinking beer on a park bench, waiting for something to happen.
Such is the premise of subUrbia, Eric Bogosian's play about the dark struggles of seemingly ordinary early twentysomethings from an ordinary town. This angst-ridden, post-high school, complex coming-of-age tale is the latest offering by Apprentice Players, a young theater troupe with a history of tackling edgy material, all under the tutelage of established theater mentors.
Produced in conjunction with Actors Guild of Lexington, subUrbia represents a milestone for Apprentice Players, whose previous productions triumphed in spite of the technical limitations of former performance spaces. With subUrbia housed at the Downtown Arts Center, the troupe has graduated to fully realized productions, complete with period-accurate sets and their own box office, not to mention artistic input at every level of production.
Directed by recent Lafayette High School grad Brandon Moore — who is bound in the fall for DePaul University, where he will study theater — subUrbia is '90s noir. The individual components of Moore's vision satisfies on several levels — particularly in the creative choices of individual actors and designers — but the play suffers from sagging momentum enough times to jeopardize the audience's attention span. The long pauses and creeping silences have a place artistically in this show — after all, the alternating tedium of listlessness and longing is a major component of the characters' psychological landscape — but they could be reined in now and then to move the show along and offer a greater sense of urgency.
Another facet of the show that I could feel the audience bracing against is the copious vulgarity, not limited to garden-variety cussing. Here I offer not a criticism to downplay the vulgarity, but a suggestion to own it further.
The nine actors, culled from area high schools and college undergrads home for the summer, were particularly well cast. Grayson Wittenbarger combines a semi-oafish physical comedy with goofy enthusiasm and a penchant for tall tales and hyper-vulgarity as Buff, the play's chief comic relief. His awkward, bare-bones seduction — and later dismissal — of friend Bebe (Susan Creech) lays the groundwork for the show's tragic twist.
C.G. Niquette, one of Apprentice Players' founders, bravely takes on the meaty role of Tim, an Air Force veteran who talks a tough game but whose insecurities manifest themselves in increasingly violent, cruel and bigoted ways.
Casey Snipes hits just the right notes as Pony, the one kid from school who managed to get out of Burnfield. Not only that, he has become a rock star. His success — the limo, the money, the recognition — sparks deep jealousy and resentment from old friend Jeff (Mathew Leonard), a wannabe writer and college dropout attempting to salvage some dignity or purpose. Jeff's girlfriend, Sooze (University of Kentucky junior Joe Elswick), a feminist artist who wants to move to New York despite Jeff's reservations, is drawn to Pony's commitment to his art and sense of possibilities beyond Burnfield.
Jeff and Sooze's turmoil over the impending move is established in the play, but what is not clear is why the couple is together in the first place. Their few moments of shared affection are fleeting.
Greg Levrault's portrayal of Norman, the Pakistani man who runs the corner convenience mart where the youngsters all hang out, is one of the play's strengths. His small role packs a punch, from calm lectures about his home life to violent self-defense in his new homeland. He represents the active American Dream, something the young adults don't seem to understand.
Another small role with a major impact is Creech's portrayal of BeBe. Quiet and reserved, BeBe doesn't drink or engage in loud, tawdry pontifications like her male counterparts. When we finally do hear her confess her back story, she does so with a kind of captivating grace and understated sorrow, a sophisticated take for a high school senior.
Her long silence in the second act (hers is a silence that works, in a way that is both riveting and haunting), followed by her ascension to the Food Mart roof to drink alone under the stars, is one of the more poignantly directed moments of the show, made more poignant by scenic designer Katie Bosomworth and technical director, scenic and lighting designer Alex Joans. From the streetlamp with the old-school pay phone to the Ms. Pac-Man game inside the convenience mart to the canopy of stars above, the troupe's technical elements soundly supported Moore's directorial view.
This show is not devoid of a few hiccups, some of which could be tightened up during the course of the run, but it remains an impressive display of artistry and underlines the potential of our community's up-and-coming theater artists. So long as Lexington is nobody's Burnfield, we can look forward to watching these talented young people grow.