At Barrington Stage, ‘Engagements’ and entanglements
PITTSFIELD — You can infer a lot about a person’s current stage of life by the sort of catered events to which he or she is regularly invited. In waves come graduation parties, engagement soirees, weddings, baby showers, and, inevitably, funerals. Other people’s life cycles make very specific demands on one’s own social calendar.
Lucy Teitler’s tart comedy “Engagements,” now receiving its world premiere at Barrington Stage Company, concerns one woman’s response to the life phase when everyone you know is getting married — and the special tensions that can arise when you’re not among them.
The play’s icy-hot center of gravity is Lauren, a woman in her late 20s who describes herself as “always single, sort of.” Her weekends are occupied with watching one friend after another celebrate upcoming nuptials. She’s closing in on a doctorate in Victorian literature, but her job assisting an aging professor enhances her sense of in-betweenness. “I’m kind-of-working 24 hours a day,” she tells a friend — with the emphasis on “kind of.”
What helps “Engagements” work — and it does so splendidly, on the whole — is that it doesn’t set out to be a generational anthem. Though it’s indeed au courant, this is no “The Big Chill” for Tinder users. At center, it’s the portrait of a fascinatingly complex woman, and here it gets the benefit of an electric, richly textured performance by Amanda Quaid.
Teitler’s writing is whip-smart, and the text is filled with memorable lines. (“There’s a really careful science to a respectful degradation,” Lauren, apparently an expert, observes.) “Engagements” is nominally set in Boston, but there’s a deliberate placelessness to it; the script specifies contemporary Boston “as if it was an English Country Manor.” This world is one of privilege, education, and white people, in which Lauren imagines herself a romantic heroine. Most of the 90-minute running time is staged in a series of swank engagement parties, which form a slyly mocking counterpoint to Lauren’s procession of sort-of boyfriends.
Her best friend, Allison, is played by Kate Loprest as a vapid airhead, always perfectly turned out in smart dresses courtesy of costume designer Beth Goldenberg. She’s been getting serious lately with straitlaced beau Mark (Robert David Grant, appropriately oily), who Lauren dismisses as “so mediocre it’s almost ostentatious.” Lauren’s compulsive need for the validation of male attention, it turns out, leads to sexual intrigue. When her younger cousin Catherine (Phoebe Strole) comes to visit with boyfriend Ryan in tow (an amusingly dour Adam Gerber), it helps propel a reshuffling of relationship statuses all around.
Lauren is sarcastic, insecure, and often says the precise opposite of what she means; Quaid plays her with enormous sensitivity and hits every note, layering subtext upon subtext. In fact, she’s almost too real for the production’s own good. Teitler describes the piece as an “absurdist” comedy, and director Louisa Proske has everyone but Quaid go very big, even verging on caricature. The tone, then, is uneven.
Things are thrown further off balance late in the play, when Ryan, a doctoral candidate himself who is amusingly locked inside his own head, starts taking up an enormous amount of oxygen. An almost cartoonish feeling intrudes for spells, milking laughs but muddling the production’s focus just as it climaxes.
Marketing materials describe “Engagements” as a “sexy” comedy, but I’d say it portrays sex in an unflattering light. The play’s perspective is more sour — and attractively so — than the premise might lead one to believe. And in the hands of Quaid, Lauren ultimately makes this a date well worth keeping.
By Lucy Teitler. Directed by
Louisa Proske. At Barrington
Stage Company, St. Germain Stage at the Sydelle and Lee Blatt Performing Arts Center, Pittsfield, through Aug. 30. Tickets:
Starting at $40. 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org