In the first scene of Lauren Yee’s “Hookman,’’ a college freshman named Lexi, home in California for Thanksgiving break, is at the wheel of a car, with Jess, a friend from high school, in the passenger seat. They’re headed to a movie.
They never get there. But the scene is replayed at a couple of points in the 90-minute “Hookman,’’ each time with a new and revealing twist, as Yee takes the audience on a different kind of journey, one that lingers at the intersection of dread and comedy.
At first, it seems that the 26-year-old Yee has merely whipped together a clever genre pastiche by fusing the skewed, random illogic of slasher films with elements of the coming-of-age comedy, then spiced the mixture with “Groundhog Day’’-style excursions into time-bending alternate realities.
But bit by unsettling bit, “Hookman’’ deepens beyond satire into a surprisingly resonant psychodrama. Yee has a point or two she wants to make about friendship, conscience, and the importance of discovering one’s inner resources, hidden though they may be beneath the play’s jokey, even cheesy surface.
Under the direction of Greg Maraio, a young cast glides nimbly and with verve across that veneer. Erin Eva Butcher, who played Sonya in Apollinaire Theatre Company’s recent “Uncle Vanya,’’ is splendid as the insecure but doughty Lexi, trying to survive the murderous, hook-wielding maniac of the title.
Billed as a workshop production (though reviewers were invited), “Hookman’’ is the result of XX Playlab, a program of the Boston Center for the Arts in collaboration with producing partner Company One, to help female playwrights develop new scripts.
There’s no program, though, that can help a writer develop the kind of ear Yee has, or the assured and original voice she demonstrates in “Hookman.’’ Though her tonal shifts don’t always work, Yee has a knack for locating the absurdist humor, the poignancy, and the accidental truth in the interstices, elliptical fragments, uptalking, and outright non sequiturs of teen-speak.
When Lexi’s attention drifts during conversation with Jess (Nicole Prefontaine), prompting the friend to complain that Lexi never listens to her, she protests: “Jess, c’mon! I hear what you’re saying; I just didn’t hear what you said.’’ Her grasp of literary matters is similarly imperfect: There’s a clever recurring joke involving Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking,’’ which Lexi mistakenly, if tellingly, believes is about a woman who brings people back from the dead.
But if Lexi seems distracted, she has good cause.
It’s her 18th birthday, but nobody remembered that fact, which is doubly galling because Lexi removed her birthdate from Facebook a week earlier, precisely to see if anyone would remember. She recently dated a guy she met online, but he turned out to be an insensitive lummox at best, and very possibly much worse than that. Her roommate at the University of Connecticut is a headphones-wearing, studying-averse boozehound. (Their dorm room, created by set designer Michael Best, sort of says it all about the less-than-rigorous academic atmosphere, with huge posters of Taylor Lautner and Katy Perry hanging on either side of a bed.)
And then there’s Hookman, a persistent and thoroughly homicidal fellow (played by Joseph Kidawski) who keeps materializing everywhere Lexi goes, from California to Connecticut, wearing a black baseball cap with the brim pulled low.
Why is he stalking her and scrawling death threats on her mirror? Why does everyone else she talks to suddenly drop a mention of Hookman into otherwise innocuous conversation, yet still seem blithely unconcerned about him? Why do her roommate, Yoonji (Pearl Shin), and a chirpily officious classmate, Chloe (Hannah Cranton), react with such nonchalance to the presence of a blood stains on their shirts?
Yee isn’t about to provide a direct answer, not when she can have, and deliver, so much grim fun providing an indirect one.
Such is the unhinged universe of this play that it makes perfect sense for Lexi to pause in the middle of a life-or-death battle with a serial killer long enough to jubilantly jump up and down, as if she had just sunk the game-winning basket.
I’m not saying that “Hookman’’ will inspire a similar reaction. But it just might prompt you to give a fist-bump (preferably hook-free) to the spectator in the next seat.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.