Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Theatre Review: Fat Kids on Fire

Posted by David

Pipeline Theatre Company returns to the stage with Bekah Brunstetter's new play Fat Kids on Fire, currently performing at Wings Theatre, in the West Village, through October 2.  This new play follows the adventures of a slighly chubby high school girl who is sent to fat camp, where she learns that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Bess is an earnest, insecure young woman trying to navigate the treacherous multi-tiered society of high school.  She longs to be accepted among the "beautiful" people but finds herself thwarted by her physical appearance and her neediness.  When her over-achieving and fitness-obssessed parents send her off to a motivational camp that specializes in overweight kids, she suddenly finds herself much higher up on the social totem pole than she has ever been, and the height, while at first intoxicating, causes her to lose her moral balance.  Brunstetter's play is both bruisingly funny and painfully accurate in its depiction of the ruthless jungle of teenage social politics.  Her language never rings false nor does she allow easy endings for her characters.  Actions have consequences and there is little room for second chances.
Nicole Spiezio and Sydney Matthews

Within minutes of her arrival, Bess aquires the attentions of Scott, an amorous, if somewhat off-putting, boyfriend, as well as devoted acolytes Bianca and MS, and roommate and self-professed "best-friend" Cindy.  She is intoxicated with the prospect of being an early front-runner for the title of Camp Princess and seems to have also caught the eye of the smolderingly handsome camp counselor, Mark.  But complicating this seemingly idyllic picture is the ascerbic Nurse Joy, the head counselor, who is suspicious of the new "it" girl at camp.  Also, the enigmatic Bridger, a young man who seems to take his style cues from the Unibomber, lurkes in the shadows, alternating icy stares with sudden quirky smiles.  And last but not least, there is Claire, the impossibly pretty girl who lurkes in Bess' thoughts like a demonic angel on her shoulder.

Sydney Matthews and John Early

I wish I could acknowledge one or two of the actors as giving standout performances, but the entire cast is so overwhelmingly and uniformly accomplished that such a task is impossible.  Handling the demands of the role superbly, Sydney Matthews plays Bess with a perfect balance of earnest confusion and defensive cruelty, and seems to be channeling a younger, fresher and slightly less malicious Chelsea Handler.  Nicole Spiezio is heartbreakingly fearless in her portrayal of the guileless, socially awkward and clingy Cindy.  Andrea Ciannavei gives touching depth to the outwardly cruel and defensive Bianca, and Megan Linde brings a fully-fleshed and earnest melancholy to Bianca's side-kick, MS.
Megan Linde, Andrea Ciannavei and Sydney Matthews

John Early demonstrates that his star turn as Chiclet in Pipeline's April 2010 production of Psycho Beach Party was no fluke.  His hilarious yet poignant portrayal of Scott, the stalker-ish boyfriend and wannabe homey, is a 180 degree turn from his previous character yet once again pitch-perfect.  Mike Steinmetz is also excellent as the nihilistically repressed Bridger.  I just wish his time on the stage wasn't so limited, as I wanted to see more of the character.

Blair Ross, Shane Zeigler and Mike Steinmetz

Kudos go to Blair Ross who treats us to Nurse Joy's sharp and toughened exterior but gives us glimpses of the wounded fat girl still haunting inside of her.  The character could easily become a charicature but Ross weaves humanity into the harshness.  I was also pleased to see another Psycho Beach Party alum, Shane Zeigler, get a greater opportunity to shine.  Zeigler was mostly eye-candy in PBP but this time...well, hell, he's still stunning, but as Mark the well-meaning but hapless co-counselor, he deftly plays a young man out of his depth among a sea of needy and attention-starved teenage girls.  Last but not least, the stunning Andi Potamkin excels in the challenging bifurcated role of Claire, the sweet but somewhat insensitive classmate who also manifests in Bess' mind and drives her in her relentless quest for popularity.

All of these excellent performers are well-served by Peter Frechette's smart direction.  The ensemble feel is strongly crafted and keeps the energy up throughout the play.  The space at Wings Theater is rather unforgiving and Frechette, who is well-known as an award-winning actor, shows of his directing chops by making a silk purse out of a sow's ear in maximizing his resources.  These resources include a utilitarian yet effective set design by Ian R. Crawford, who works miracles with four green benches, T. Rick Hayashi's smart lighting design, Liam Nelligan's ambiant and evocative sound design, lively costumes by Meagan Kensil and Brian Maxsween, and clever prop design from Jenny Donheiser.

As noted above, Fat Kids on Fire only performs through October 2.  Run, do not walk, to this production before it is gone.  Tickets are $18 ($12 for students) and can be purchased through Smartix or by calling (212) 868-4444.  For more information, visit www.pipelinetheatre.org.

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