I hate how girls are supposed to be these, like, flavorless non-people, these meek little things, just so we can be some dude's cumbucket and squirt out his awful babies."
When a play explicitly acknowledges such a problem, as does Joshua Conkel's The Chalk Boy, now at the Impact Theatre, that play should presumably also combat it: perhaps with female characters who have multiple character traits, assert their desires, or define themselves by something other than their relationships to men.
There aren't any men in Conkel's work — at least, outside of nightmares. The Boy is Jeff Chalk, one of those high school kids who despite his mediocrity has a certain cool magnetism that makes him popular — and that might also explain why he was chosen for a random kidnapping, leaving the residents of Clear Creek, Wash., reeling.
The female residents we meet are certainly assertive. There are Lauren (Maria Giere Marquis) and Trisha (Chris Quintos), co-presidents of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, who feel no compunction about mocking the "s-l-u-t"s who live in factory-made homes, or the "horse girls" who wear Target jeans. There's Penny (Luisa Frasconi), who says things like, "Wicca is my religion, mother," or who regularly tells her one friend she's "boring" or a "dumb bitch." That friend, Breanna (Caitlyn Tella), says things like "I'll kick your puffy little vagina so hard that your grandchildren will be sterile," as she tries to convince herself (and Penny) that she's not a lesbian. And there's Penny's mother (also played by Marquis), who practices Pilates with a glass of wine in her hand and tells her daughter to watch her weight so she doesn't end up looking like "a trash bag full of hamburger meat."
But this just substitutes one kind of simplicity for another. In his effort to add "flavor" to female characters, Conkel uses pretty uninteresting spices. You might recognize them from Mean Girls — a dash of studio-manufactured zingers that can't conceal the pungent taste of predictability. In spite of some imaginative direction from Ben Randle and some compelling performances, the play is only as strong as its coarsest one-liner.
That's because its premise stretches thin well before the second act. We're never given reasons to care about Jeff Chalk aside from those touted by the lovesick, slashed-tights-sporting Penny. Lamenting a "sadness" that she suffers "always," she's a tiresome central character, one whose obsession with a generic jock fails to generate much dramatic heat. Lurid plot points — a phantom pregnancy, a knife fight, grocery store drugs and the vomiting they induce — are unhelpful Band-Aids.
Far more successful are the performances developed by Quintos, whose exaggerated comedy brightens Conkel's work. She and Marquis as narrators — with Marquis as the straight man and Quintos screwing everything up, including the opening prayer — open the show like a well-seasoned traditional comic duo. As Mrs. Murkowski, the girls' teacher, Quintos speaks with a Midwestern accent that seems to emanate directly from her nose, flares her lips like the bell of a trumpet, and sniffles as though she's adjusting her entire sinus cavity. Later, her Trisha, the conflicted FCA member and sometime spellcaster, offers a cathartic combination of over-the-top attitude — her signoff of "kisses, bitches" really does make you feel both kissed and like a bitch — and irreverence for all that the other characters hold dear — for her, a spell ingredient doubles as a snack. It's too bad she isn't around often enough to keep this play animated.
Director Randle tries to keep things moving with inventive scene changes: a classroom, with the actresses' torsos swiveling in unison, becomes a car; a wall with the right cast of light becomes a bed; and, with the help of Colin Trevor's projections and sound design, dream and magic sequences transport us into a world where spells, nightmares, and Ouija boards really do have power.
But that doesn't quite salvage this play. The Chalk Boy isn't sure whether it wants to expose "the terror" that lurks underneath suburbia's quiet exterior, mock the catty girls who are a product of it, or chronicle the ripple effects of one girl's depression. In any case, these points have all already been made elsewhere, sometimes even by characters who can't be summed up by their crushes and extracurricular activities.