Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

Photo/Jim Baldassare

Why do people read diaries, memoirs, and personal letters? Perhaps it is because we hope to catch a reflection of ourselves, and thereby learn something in the process. In its own sense, theater operates on a similar level, which makes Marielle Heller's adaptation of Phoebe Gloeckner's graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl quite an understandable project. Even though the tale of a 70s girl who falls for her mother's boyfriend--and worse--is billed as fiction, it feels real and relevant--especially to a new generation of young, sexual rebels. It is also immensely aided by Heller's fierce connection to the project--she also plays the diarist, Minnie--and the ways in which co-directors Rachel Eckerling and Sarah Cameron Sunde have maintained the artistry of the tale, projecting a variety of images across this large, shag-carpeted, lived-in space. (It's a scenic designer's dream, one that Lauren Helpern has made a reality, basically imprisoning the audience in a blown-up version of Minnie's bedroom.) However, the show falters in its reluctance to be as graphic as the novel, shying away from nudity and relegating certain characters and scenes to off-stage voices and too-distant illustrations. At times, it is still a powerful play, but like Crumb and American Splendor, the great grotesques of life do not easily transition from one medium to another.

However, what does do well on stage (as it always has) is language, and Heller fills her characters with such awkwardness that we sympathize with them, even when they're wrapped up in drug-addled gang-bangs. (Perhaps even more, at these points.) Moreover, because Minnie continues to record her diaries throughout the show, we constantly see the shifts in perception between her world and reality: "Monroe Rutherford is the handsomest man in the world. As for myself, I am not particularly attractive at all." Neither of these things are true, but one can understand how a fifteen-year-old girl who finds herself the focus of her mother's boyfriend Monroe (the always excellent Michael Laurence) might think so: "I know it seems weird, but I have this strangely calming feeling that even if he touched my tits on purpose it's probably all right because he's one of our best friends and he's a good guy and he knows how it goes and I don't." This naive curiosity, coupled with a teenage girl's energy, is sickly comic gold, though like true graphic novels, it is deeply wedded to a serious heart. The drama slowly builds, often having to chip through facades of childish dreams, but pays great rewards when it does--as with Charlotte (Mariann Mayberry), Minnie's desperately trying to hold-on single mother: "Why me?" Even the underdeveloped ex-step-father Pascal (Jon Krupp) and best friend Kimmie (Neill Mooney) make the most of their moments, at the least giving us a clearer picture of Minnie's development (or lack thereof).

It's thanks to the actors that the dreamy narrative works, for as things quickly leap from significant moment to significant moment (with plenty of awkward, mundane, or comparative ones along the way), the actors remain on hand as touchstones. In this sense, Sunde and Eckerling are able to segue from a comic moment with the girls (they lick an album cover of David Bowie's crotch, convinced they can feel his dick) into a confessional between Minnie and Monroe: "I like it when he kisses me in the little kisses that are not just sexy...I am a little bit scared...I wouldn't know what to do if he really got serious about me...this fear makes me feel all alone." Heller's range in these scenes certainly helps, not to mention her expressive eyes and her lithe frame, which accents characters doe-like vulnerability but also panther-like fire. (It is impossible to discuss her character in ways that do not boil down to sex.) She's confused, but not, angry, but not, prey, but not--and the show is worth seeing just on the strength of Heller's ability to shift between those instantaneous shifts and doubts.

In other words, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is worth seeing as a performance piece, which is as it should be, considering that it cannot hope to recapture all the image-memories of the novel itself. Taken this way, it's also easier to accept the out-of-the-blue revelations about certain characters, the result of theatrical compression and the conventions of the stage. Taken this way, it's also easier to find that glint in a character, that reflection or revelation of self, that makes theater worth living for.

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