Theater

In Its Off-Broadway Debut, ‘peerless’ Calls Out to ‘Macbeth’

For a pair of overachieving twins, getting into a good college can be murder.

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High school is such a nidus of adolescent anxiety, it’s a wonder playwrights don’t regularly seize on the dramatic potential of characters ritually competing against, befriending, dating, betraying, and avoiding one another. Earlier this year, Roundabout Underground mounted Dave Harris’s Exception to the Rule, an existentially inflected play about a group of Black high schoolers incarcerated in detention. Through one of the characters, Erika, an academically successful student played by MaYaa Boateng, the play exposed the fault lines between those who “play by the rules” and accommodate the expectations of white people and those who find themselves caught in a perpetual cycle of rule-breaking and punishment. Then there are those plays that make explicit the analog between socially maladjusted strivers and ravening rulers. A standout in this category is Teenage Dick, Mike Lew’s acidic take on Richard III, which swirls around a high school senior with cerebral palsy who is determined to become class president and pulverize all who stand in his way. The humid, cloistered world of cliques and calculus was made to tilt at a parallel angle to the pressurized environment of a royal court. Now, thanks to Primary Stages, we have a tar-hearted comedy making its Off-Broadway debut that is something of an evil (eviler?) twin to Teenage Dick: peerless, by Jiehae Park, an excellent, paper-cut-sharp play after Macbeth (adaptation isn’t quite the right word for a play that edges crabwise toward and then away from its exoskeleton).

For a certain type of high achiever in thrall to perfect GPAs and hordes of extracurriculars, getting into an Ivy can feel as monumental as, say, ascending to the throne of a kingdom. In place of Macbeth and his scheming wife, we have M and L, two Asian American high schoolers played with spooky synchronicity by Sasha Diamond and Shannon Tyo, respectively. They’re identical twins, but academically separated by a year: M is on the cusp of graduation while L is a junior who chose to stay back a year to better her odds of being accepted into “The College,” which has historically accepted only one early-decision student from their high school in “Nowheresville” each year. (The College is never explicitly named, but the “Veritas” logo on acceptance envelopes is a huge crimson clue.) On paper, the sisters are “shoo-ins”: M has a 4.8 GPA , perfect SATs, and a roster of AP courses, and L is also comfortably ensconced in the top 10 of her year. To most people (including their teachers), they are indistinguishable: They wear matching black-and-white outfits in school and are only differentiated by the color of their hairbands and backpacks (costumes by Amanda Gladu), which they wear strapped to their backs like jet packs. The velocity of their words, if only there were a way of bottling their logorrhea, could easily propel them to outer space and back. Slowly, though, you get the sense that they’d have no scruples about shedding other things, like morals, along the way, as if they were trifling ballast.

The first sign of turbulence comes when L and M discover that D, a white classmate (played by Benny Wayne Sully), has secured a coveted early admission spot to The College, while M has been deferred. (Acceptances to The College are telegraphed by fat envelopes dropping from the sky.) A tirade ensues about this “no-good no-talent no-brain-fat-fuck” taking “their” spot even though he has a lower GPA. They surmise that his trickle of Native American blood gave him the decisive advantage—and pushed M and L’s plans off course. Soon after, a clairvoyant classmate known as “Dirty Girl” (played as an eldritch Bellatrix Lestrange by Marié Botha) delivers a prophecy in the gnomic spirit of the Weird Sisters: One of the twins (I’ll not reveal who) will get into The College, along with her “little dog” (a slur D’s brother later uses to refer to another character, M’s on-and-off boyfriend, BF, played by Anthony Cason). Spurred by the prophecy, M cooks up a plan with L to murder D at an upcoming “Hoopcoming” dance using tree nuts (to which D is fatally allergic), and to frame D’s brother for the murder. True to the arc of Macbeth, their plan succeeds, but D’s brother, who has cystic fibrosis, knows what they did and has vengeance on his mind. M and L successively succumb to hallucinations; instead of Lady Macbeth’s bloodstained hands, they’re plagued by misophonic maladies. (Sound designer Palmer Hefferan effectively conjures birds cawing, rats scurrying, and loud snacking; Mextly Couzin’s lighting design summons ghostly terrors.) That’s about as much as I can give away without straying into true spoiler territory.

 

Rather than rehearse a series of familiar questions, peerless is an interrobang of a play that crackles with kamikaze energy.

 

A play that trades in schematic characters—and that relies so heavily on the trope of Asian interchangeability—risks surfacing all the obvious, waterlogged questions: for instance, the costs of assimilation, the ethics of tiger parenting, or the performance of racial identity. Yet if M and L can occasionally feel, under Margot Bordelon’s direction, like cardboard characters—without much psychological depth and doomed to scurry around like ants under Park’s magnifying glass—it doesn’t make for an entirely unpleasant experience. The sense of flatness and fungibility, which never entirely recedes, becomes integral to the plot in the second half of the play, which unhandcuffs itself from Macbeth and sprints toward something less … overdetermined. Rather than rehearse a series of familiar questions, peerless is an interrobang of a play that crackles with kamikaze energy.

It’s also eerily prescient in the way that it accents high school as an endurance sport. Since it first premiered, at Yale Repertory Theatre, in 2015, the line of scrimmage over affirmative action has been drawn and redrawn multiple times, but issues about racial diversity in college admissions have been given new urgency this month as the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in two cases on affirmative action. Peerless casts a different spell now; it’s a play that an appallingly accomplished student might recommend to both her best friend and her nemesis. 

Not all the details of the play hold up under scrutiny, though. In one scene, L, warming up for ballet, leaves a voicemail for M that goes on for an implausible three minutes. (Do kids these days actually return texts using voicemail? And what kind of plan allows callers to leave such long messages without politely cutting them off?) In another scene, in their home, M and L share a twin bed with just one pillow, producing the momentary (perhaps inadvertent?) impression that one of them is the illusory double of the other, or that the twins have fused into one schizophrenic composite. 

You could call these misfires, but if they are, they ultimately feel less like wrong answers on a standardized test than errors that weavers sometimes deliberately introduce into their tapestries so as not to offend the gods. When it comes to the vexed history of “the Scottish play,” allowance should probably be made for errors as amulets. Even when peerless unstitches itself from Shakespeare—one of the twins survives long enough to matriculate at The College—the play avoids becoming a simple morality tale. The Dirty Girl’s prophecies repeatedly wrongfoot the twins and thwart our expectations for easy anagnorisis. In the final scene, one of the twins has just arrived on The College’s campus; she stands flagpole-straight, but her heart’s at half-mast. It should be a moment of triumph, the apotheosis of years of hard work, if only she can put the past behind her and look instead to tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.  

Rhoda Feng is a freelance writer based in New York whose work has appeared in 4Columns, The Baffler, BOMB, the White Review, Bookforum, Public Books, and the New Republic, among other publications.

peerless
59E59 Theaters
59 East 59th Street
212-753-5959
Through November 6

 

 

 

 

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