Nick Mecikalski’s Really Really Gorgeous (directed by Miranda Haymon) is set in a dystopian world that will seem familiar or at least largely plausible to audiences in 2020. In the play, dramatic shifts in climate have left much of North America underwater (both literally and figuratively). All of the Pacific Time Zone and, apparently, most portions of the Atlantic seaboard have been submerged. The White House has been moved to literal (but not figurative) higher ground—the nation’s capital city is now Cleveland, Ohio. At the same time, governance has become inextricably linked to show business, with media personalities asserting tremendous influence over a water-weary public.
The play doesn’t really sound so far-fetched, now, does it?
The world Mecikalski creates here mostly lacks the epic appeal of some entertainments with a dystopian setting— the film Blade Runner, for instance. Really Really Gorgeous gets underway by showing us a homely domestic setting: a garbage-strewn shack where two young friends/lovers—Pen (Sophie Becker) and Mar (Amber Jaunai)—are holed up. In a long stretch at the top of the play, these young women seem hesitant to move from their sofa, where they cuddle and watch television. This piece of furniture seems to be their entire world: their refuge from things wet and worrisome. We learn that they subsist on cans of SpaghettiOs that arrive periodically in the mail, and that they hope in vain that there’ll be a can or two of green beans included in the delivery.
In the opening scene, Pen and Mar are in a somewhat agitated state. With stars in their eyes, they share with each other the poems they’ve written and intend to send to the U.S. president as part of a national talent competition. The contest has been hatched, it seems, as a way to divert the American masses from their sad, soggy predicament. At some point during the night, one or perhaps both women submit their contest entries online. The next morning, they learn—in hilariously short order—that Mar’s poem has been chosen from among millions of submissions. She prepares immediately to leave Pen behind, taking a government-provided car to Cleveland, where she is to meet with both the president and the ubiquitous television personality known simply as The Announcer (Giselle LeBleu Gant).
Before long, the once-humble Mar experiences not only a dramatic boost in cultural prestige but also a personality shift. After reading her poem, “Sloshing About,” for the masses in TV land, she begins to believe her own publicity. “Suddenly, I’m a sort of queen,” she tells Pen late in the play. She seems to believe she’s arrived at her throne because of some sort of divine right having to do with her cleverness and her appeal to audiences. Pen, however, has also undergone a change. Her envy and her sense that Mar has betrayed her inspire in her a burst of self-assertion. She, too, leaves the sofa and sets off for Cleveland.
Really Really Gorgeous has an often-amusing absurdist and surrealistic sensibility. Plot turns take on the illogical quality that exists in dreams or in kids’ games of “Let’s pretend.” For instance, at one point, Pen discovers that by curling her hand in a certain way, she can transform it into a magical ammo-firing “finger gun” that can be used as an instrument of destruction. This may seem like goofy stuff, but Mecikalski the allegorist has serious points to make here: about celebrity and despotism and about the swiftness with which the sentiments of a desperate, fickle populace can change.
Becker and Jaunai are just fine in their roles, with the latter coming off somewhat more polished and unaffected than the former. The character you’ll remember most from this play, however, is The Announcer. Gant plays her as a sometimes-menacing, hilariously over-the-top Oprah Winfrey sort with touches of Elmer Gantry. She warmly cajoles, charms and confides in her listeners at one moment and then berates them soundly the next. At one point we see the character momentarily out of the public gaze, and witness her making one of the loopiest, most contorted faces you’ll ever likely observe. One wonders at times whether Gant decided to play this character as a manic robot, operating in overdrive. It’s a wonderfully nutty performance with some eerily disturbing notes.
This is a modest production when it comes to design elements. The company Crushed Red, credited with scenic design, has not, unfortunately, found a way to illustrate the most salient attribute of Mecikalski’s dystopia: its wetness. In a best-case staging, the portion of the stage floor representing Pen and Mar’s shack would be flooded in ankle-deep rainwater, while the portion depicting Cleveland would be bone dry. It seems particularly ironic that a watery effect could not be created in a theater called The Tank. To do so, however, would likely break the budget of many a theater company.
It falls to Taylor Lilly, the lighting designer, to come up with ways of realizing some of the more action-packed sequences—for instance, the montage in which Pen struggles on foot through the elements to make her way to join Mar in Cleveland. One appreciates Lilly’s attempts to create some visually arresting moments, but in future productions, perhaps some of these adventures could be presented in a less-vague way through the use of animated projections.
As for costuming, Alice Tavener has provided good contrasts between the humble world of shack-bound Pen and Mar and the considerably more upscale ambience of Cleveland. This is most evident in her clothes for Mar, which go from dumpy to tony as the character quickly ascends the rungs toward full political power.
While the production here is not perfect, the play itself is thoughtful and darkly funny, and the performers are admirably game for an array of theatrical antics.
Really Really Gorgeous (through February 9, 2020)
The Tank in association with Lucy Powis and The Hodgepodge Group
The Tank, 312 West 36th Street, 1st floor, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.thetanknyc.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission