If you put Company One Theatre’s last three productions together you’d have a pretty potent trilogy of what it means to be a teenager today trying to figure out sex, family and other relations in 2015.
And as good as last spring/summer’s “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them” and “Colossal” were, Ruby Rae Spiegel’s “Dry Land” is the standout of the three (through Oct. 30 at the Boston Center for the Arts). Company One artistic director Shawn LaCount has compared her to Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker ("The Flick"), and for good reason. Spiegel is less funny and more edgy, but she has that same indirect way of burrowing into her characters’ psyches. As inarticulate as they might seem to be at any one time, they end up speaking volumes to each other, and to us.
Part of that is body language, so give credit to director Steven Bogart (“Shockheaded Peter”) and his two fabulous young stars, Stephanie Recio as Amy, who’s trying to get her friend Ester, played by Eva Hughes, help her induce an abortion, first by punching her in the stomach. “Punch me again” are the first words of the play.
But are they friends? Amy is clearly the alpha dog here (“How are you so bad at this?”) and part of the reason for her sudden intimacy with Ester is that she doesn’t want her real BFF, Reba, to know she’s pregnant. She also clearly loves lording it over Ester in ways that will make you cringe with anti-nostalgia, no matter how old you are. Clearly, this is more than an issue-play about abortion rights (and wrongs).
The action takes place mostly in the girls’ locker room — Amy and Ester are on the swim team. The banter is often seemingly light-hearted.
Ester: “I used to believe in Zombies.”
Amy: “Me too.”
Ester: “Did you ever think that our organs taste like something?”
But Spiegel is after more than easy humor as the dialogue often gets into more traumatic teenage issues — “Sometimes I get so drunk I think I’m someone else.’’ — before heading back to drier land. But little nuggets like that keep popping up, as when Ester says of a former coach, “Sometimes he made me feel too alive if that makes sense.”
All of which is part of the 22-year-old Spiegel’s amazing ability to balance opposites — humor and the potential for tragedy, a mature vision with a willingness to be a little reckless, a political point of view without letting that POV determine the characters’ actions.
Ester is fine helping Amy induce an abortion as long as Amy casts it as helping her out. But when Amy starts referring to the fetus as “it,” Ester blanches. Anti-abortionists would nod in appreciation — not that they’d find much else to warm to in this frank discussion of teenage sexuality.
The other powerful moment of ambiguity in the 100-minute play is when the school janitor walks in on the two of them toward the end of the play. I won’t say what they’re up to, but the scene is played perfectly by Paul Trainor. Is he sympathetic? Disgusted? Resigned? Or all three? Spiegel, Bogart and Trainor all leave the questions artfully dangling.
The rest of the cast is fine, too, but the play and production really belong to Recio’s Amy and Hughes’s Ester. Neither actor is in high school anymore, but you could have fooled me the way they inhabit that world. Recio is all macha bravado, reveling in her “sluttiness,” though you wonder if it isn’t a bit like Josie’s false front in Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten.” Recio is such a gifted, confident actor that you have to think we’ll be seeing a lot more of her.
But Hughes has the more complicated part. She’s awkward, trying to fit in, not sure how to carry herself. By play’s end, though, Hughes makes it every bit as much Ester's story as Amy’s and the final scenes are out of this world, the final moment just perfect.
The race of the two characters is not specified by Spiegel, but the decision to cast an African-American woman as Ester by Company One, is another example of the theater’s commitment to diversity without sacrificing a whit of quality. Without having seen the New York production, my guess is that it's enhanced. Hughes makes you feel that the part was written for a black girl trying to assimilate into a mostly white world, particularly when Amy tells a racist joke.
If you want to see what all the fuss about Company One is about, “Dry Land” is a great place to start. It’s a gem.
Ed Siegel is critic at large and editor of The ARTery.