There’s something stupid about the ongoing condemnation of Millennials happening now in our culture. You know, the one that asks questions like: “Why are Generation Y yuppies so unhappy?” and then suggests that the answer is because Millennials are the most spoiled, entitled, narcissistic generation known to history, conveniently forgetting that Generation Y was born, as one online source put it recently, “into a economic hellscape created by their parents.” (Elsewhere, the game of intergenerational recrimination has gotten particularly nasty, as in the case of a sarcastic YouTube rant titled “Millennials: We Suck and We’re Sorry”) Thankfully, Mike Lew’s new play, Bike America, takes up some of these very questions both sensitively and in rich dramatic ways. It’s easily one of the better new plays by a young American writer I’ve seen in a long time.
Bike America follows Penny (Jessica DiGiovanni), a self-described “fuckup” on a transcontinental quest to find meaning in an otherwise empty life. She’s 27 years old, stuck in a dead-end relationship and an equally dead-end three-year graduate program that she describes only as “stupid-ass.” (This couldn’t possibly be an M.F.A. in playwriting, could it?) On a whim, she joins up with a cross-country bike trip, ostensibly to raise money for cancer research, but more importantly to “try on” each new city she visits in order to find a place of belonging.
The play makes her into a downright pathological case: a total neurotic, incapable of forging strong attachments with other people, given to paralyzing indecisiveness and knee-jerk irony, and nonetheless haunted by an intense longing for some deeper significance. Although these characterizations are reductive enough to run the risk of caricature, in Lew’s play they unfold into a deeper meditation on commitment and love, tourism, the brevity of life, and finding an identity in the act of acknowledging one’s responsibility to others.
Lew’s largely realistic script is full of verve, and the production is expertly brought off by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, who taps into the play’s lighthearted comedy and its more perplexed somberness. The production’s set and lighting design elements are also handsome, effectively communicating through suggestive gestures the country’s rich landscapes and color palettes. (Full disclosure: Scenic designer Drew Boyce is a good friend and sometime collaborator of mine.)
All seven cast members deliver fine performances, with DiGiovanni’s slightly scenery-chewing Penny among the most enjoyable. Several of the other six actors play multiple roles to great satiric effect, including a moment sure to delight the play’s New York audience—David Shih and Marilyn Torres as a pair of fake-friendly, artisanal cheese-making hipsters from Williamsburg on CitiBikes.
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