A motherless 16-year-old girl in a sleepy burg on the Great Plains; a fatherless teenage Filipino American boy in an urban Catholic school: From these characters’ adolescent angst, sexual awakening, and hurt, Stephanie Fleischmann and Han Ong forge two very different dramas. Both plays, Eloise & Ray and Middle Finger, deal with adult repression and its repercussions, but Fleischmann homes in on one character for a finely detailed, layered portrait, while Ong attempts—less successfully—to portray an entire milieu.
Eloise & Ray is a bittersweet, lyrical account of a love-starved survivor in a vast, lonely place. When we first see Eloise sitting on the sidewalk in the dinky hamlet of Ovid, Colorado, we don’t know that this disheveled waif has been there for three days and nights without sleep or food. No wonder she’s raving a bit. But when we come to learn her story, which the playwright lets us glimpse in emotionally mounting increments, we understand.
Eloise’s mom died when she was nine, and her adored older brother Jed ran off a few months later, leaving her only a guitar and a farewell note. Eloise grew up untutored in feminine manners or wiles, with a dad who believed only sluts wear lipstick. At 16, she’s sweetly young, hanging on for life to the memory of her brother. He “taught me three chords on the guitar,” she says, “and now they’re strung on my DNA.”
As she sits glued to the pavement, her lover, Ray, comes by. He’s just returned from an unexplained three-day absence, during which Eloise’s father has thrown her out, tricked by his devious new woman, who wants Eloise gone. Ray has a history. He was Jed’s best pal and, unknown to Eloise, took the rap for him when they bungled a jewelry story robbery. After seven years in jail, Ray showed up in town to wreak revenge on the traitor’s sister. Instead, he fell hopelessly in love, and Eloise opened her heart to him. Finding her on the sidewalk after his days away, Ray pleads and wheedles for forgiveness while his wounded love digs in. Always, Ray must compete with Jed’s perfect image and must decide—with everything at stake—whether Eloise can bear to hear the truth about her brother.
Fleischmann’s language is down-home poetic without waxing precious. By repetition and accretion, she weaves the picture of Eloise’s courtship, her past, her present. Scenes overlap; simultaneous monologues battle to a crescendo, creating a sense of Eloise’s tumultuous internal life. In one sequence, as Ray soliloquizes about his besotted adoration, Eloise’s stepmother lectures on a proper young lady’s deportment, while Eloise races furiously in place, as if desperate to escape them both.
Maria Thayer’s Eloise, this “ratty-tatty girl,” combines an exquisite vulnerability with a rage to survive. She makes utterly credible that the tall and muscular Ray cannot lift her tiny form off the ground: She weighs heavy with gravitas. Her performance is funny, nuanced, and sad. Chris Payne Gilbert’s Ray mixes the confident swagger of a born ladies’ man with the humble bafflement of a fellow laid low by love, and Black-Eyed Susan, in brief appearances, makes the wicked Southern-debutante stepmother both comic-edged and cruel.
Director Alexandra Aron delineates these relationships with sensitivity and stages them with visceral physicality, moody lighting, atmospheric video, and music—from fearsome percussion to lonesome twang. Everything comes together in the authentically realized denouement, which reverberates with the layered sorrows of Eloise.
Han Ong’s depiction of teenage boys is also on-target, at least in the details: the young men’s vulgarity and braggadocio, their rough friendship and sexually driven obsessions. But when the playwright drops these recognizable types into the cauldron of a melodrama and tries to send a message, Middle Finger becomes literally incredible.
Loosely adapted from Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, but set in an all-boys Catholic school with Filipino protagonists, Ong’s play tells the tale of Jakob, a rebel, and Benjamin, a troubled, studious kid, as well as their classmates, their families, their friends’ families, and the oppressive morality pounded into the boys by their authoritarian teachers.
The soul-squashing tragedy of this “teaching” is Ong’s point. In one scene, the school’s inquisitorial principal reduces Benjamin to tears when he refuses to believe the student wrote a “disturbing” essay about his family. This interaction is affecting, but everywhere else the school’s discipline gets depicted so stereotypically as to be laughable. Ong seems to be relying on our preconceived idea of the perniciousness of repression. But we can’t take this, so to speak, on faith.
Ong also expects us to believe in his plot, but the central actions, involving two linked deaths, are unconvincing. He surrounds these events with so much ancillary material and so many minor characters that the piece loses focus and never finds a consistent tone. Ong is best depicting the everyday behavior of boys, especially their language. Their school essays on “What Interests Me” and their confabs over porno cards are a scream.
Loy Arcenas’s staging is first-rate, with its prisonlike schoolyard set, gorgeous lighting, and jangling sounds. Also, several of the young actors—Orlando Pabotoy, Ramón de Ocampo, and Seth Michael May—are appealing performers. But as real boys, not players in a tortured soap opera.