Cylla von Tiedemann
Rong Fu (left), Natasha Mumba and Liz Peterson appear in entertaining but unfocussed The Millennial Malcontent
You can’t have it both ways. Either you write an über-contemporary play about millennials or you update a Restoration comedy that most of us have never seen. It’s almost impossible to do both and, despite the fact that Erin Shields fell in love with John Vanbrugh’s 1697 play The Provoked Wife, it’s not clear why she would try.
Monied Moxy (Liz Peterson) is profoundly bored with her nice-guy husband, Johnny (Reza Sholeh), who’s working hard at his unpaid internship. Johnny’s best friend, podcaster Heartfree (James Daly), is goading Johnny into having an affair with vir-ginal vegan Faith (Rong Fu), who’s being encouraged by performance artist and perpetual grad student Teasel (Natasha Mumba).
Frank Cox-O’Connell plays Charm, an egomaniacal YouTube star who has his own personal IT consultant, Raz (Alicia Richardson), and personal assistant, Mimi (Amelia Sargisson). Teasel’s been having a field day provoking Charm, calling him a bullshit phony, prompting him to fall in love with her.
Many moments in Shields’s in-the-moment comedy are satirically thrilling. References to ironic miso-gyny, sexual fluidity and do-gooding NGOs are consistently clever, and the search for that ever-elusive happiness feels authentic. The performers, for the most part, are good, especially Peterson, who has the unenviable task of making us care about an unlikeable character, and high-energy Mumba as Teasel.
The multimedia visuals are very effective, and Howard Davis’s gorgeous projections make for some delicious eye candy.
But why, except for Shields’s obsession with an old play, the broad comedy? For some reason, Sargisson plays Mimi on her hands and knees for most of the show. And director Peter Hinton has elicited a clown-like, over-the-top performance from charismatic Cox-O’Connell that feels like it belongs in another play. It’s awfully entertaining, but it winds up being a distraction in almost every scene.
Occasionally a risky sequence, three women pretend to be men masturbating, for example, shows promise – but no point. And the piece has little narrative structure and almost no emotional core. Shields, as we know from her previous works like the much darker If We Were Birds, is a wonderful writer. Faith’s monologue about loneliness in winter is beautiful, as is Moxy’s final speech, and a scene between best friends Johnny and Heartfree in which they compare notes on how they rehearse their emotions for a visit to a bar is brilliant.
But the whole thing doesn’t quite add up.