It’s Only Kickball, Stupid is the no-duh title of kef productions’ latest play, but the themes of this piece set mostly on a playground — and perfectly timed to open in sync with New York City schools — are neither obvious nor childish. Caroline Prugh’s text borrows the exuberant language and mannerisms of sixth graders growing up in the late ’80s (totally! awesome!) to dig into complex matters of identity, memory, and sexuality with the nonchalant shovel swipes of kids in a sandbox.
Fortunately, the glanced-over premise of the MTV generation’s coming of age is given two opposites-in-attraction protagonists worthy of a John Hughes film and a ferocious pair of actresses who carry them off. As playground newcomer Fiona, Lori Prince is brooding and tomboyish in jet-black ponytails, slouchy pants, and Doc Martens. Sporting a ruffled skirt, pink crew socks, and a cascade of auburn ringlets, Autumn Hurlbert is an exultant, fearless, and flirty Margo. They’re in each other’s faces from Scene One, rebounding off one another with the bouncy resilience of the title’s rubber ball. It’s easy to imagine Margo, who struts with such intensity that she sometimes clutches her side in pain, as the captain of the girls’ kickball team that’s “creamed” on a daily basis by a stronger boys’ lineup.
But kickball is not Prugh’s subject and no innings are played in this purportedly interactive piece, in which the role of the audience, seated at folding tables strewn with colored paper and crayons encircling a room at the Hartley House community center, is limited to providing a listening ear to Fiona’s reminiscences of those recess-hour skirmishes. In the group-therapy session that ensues, we meet the girls’ male counterparts: Henry, Margo’s jocko boyfriend (Eric T. Miller, perfectly doltish in acid-washed jeans and floppy hair); and his effeminate sidekick, Ian (Debargo Sanyal), who lends nervy counterpoints to the raging hetero hormones.
The question of why Fiona should need to relive their sparring matches becomes the elephant in the room about halfway through the 90-minute performance — likewise, why these should be consistently pitched at a register barely below a shouting match, under Adam Fitzgerald’s direction (a bit too “annoying!”). It’s just then that Prugh boots a towering sacrifice fly, leaping the action to the present and a surprising new thematic field of gender equality. In the context of exploring Fiona’s “hopeless crush” on Margo and, to a lesser extent, Ian’s homosexuality, Prugh has the pair, now best friends sharing an apartment in Astoria, debate the easier road to coming out for gays than for lesbians, at the same time reuniting a “hopeful” Fiona with a greatly diminished Margo, who’s now in an unhappily traditional marriage of unequal domestic responsibilities. But Margo makes clear she “isn’t like” Fiona, and the play finally becomes a lament of unfulfilled desire and memory’s alluring chimeras. So it was only kickball they were playing at after all.
Though admirable in its attempted range, Prugh’s story expends its formidable energy and a potentially interesting riff on the gender-and-equality conversation in nominally explored, tangential concerns. And beyond a few pop-culture references, kef’s production never relaxes enough to capitalize on the latent humor of the ’80s context. But despite the lost opportunities, Prince and Hurlbert turn in endearing, nuanced performances near the end to kick home a final winning run.