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The May Queen

(photo by David Fertik)

A new comedy at Chautauqua Theater Company

Molly Smith Metzler’s new comedy, The May Queen, commissioned by the Chautauqua Theater Company and now being performed at the Bratton Theater, has echoes of The Breakfast Club, Grease, Mean Girls, Carrie, Peggy Sue Got Married, and every other story of high school wherein the girls are mean and the guys are shallow and selfish.

And yet in many ways The May Queen is nothing like those tales of woeful adolescent drama. To begin, the characters in this play are not teenagers. They graduated from Kingston High back in the 1990s and are now, supposedly, adults. The hope and apprehension of high school have been supplanted by resignation, disappointment, and distorted memories of youth.

I have long maintained that anyone who thinks big cities are alienating does not come from a small town. In the reality of this play, everyone in Kingston, New York (Metzler’s real life hometown) is judgmental, preoccupied with everybody else’s business, and peculiarly stuck in the past.

While the playwright has a very serious story to tell, she artfully employs the style of television situation comedy to disguise her mission. For her setting, she has chosen a bleak insurance office, and she starts her play with a sight and sound gag involving one character’s extreme attempts to inject some personality into this dreary workplace.

We know this setting. The workplace family with the harsh boss is a ubiquitous sitcom arrangement. This is Lucy working for Mr. Mooney in Life with Lucy. This is the workplace family at WJM television, working for Lou Grant. This is Larry Tate of Bewitched, Mel Cooley who tormented the writers on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Mel of Mel’s Diner on Alice, and litany of more recent television work settings.

And true to form, a series of stereotypical character types enters as we commence to navigate our way from joke to joke.

David Lund, a nerdy guy, contented in a nowhere job, tries to get his drunken pal and co-worker Mike Petracca to leave by the back door. Mike has been suspended from his job, and if he’s caught on the premises he’ll be fired. It is an adolescent scene, a “drunk scene” that derives its comedy from the antics of being theatrically drunk. And yet, within these familiar and seemingly shallow tropes, the playwright has hidden her exposition and the complex conflict of her play. This is not to be a play about a suspended employee and a comically unreasonable boss.

I’ll give you a clue: follow the red velvet cupcake.

Metzler continues to lure us into familiar and seemingly benign territory.

Co-workers Gail Gillespie and David Lund lament the recent firing of an adored 28-year employee by the new and offensively youthful boss from hell.

When Gillespie, the sort of character Megan Mullally plays to spectacular effect, bursts onto the scene, we can clearly see the high school girl she once was, preoccupied with the minutia of dances, gossip, petty grievances, and the distinction between white and off-white. When David Lund hears that the new temp is the former high school May Queen, he reveals a preoccupation with her high school history that borders on a fetish. Mike Petracca will turn out to be obsessed with one single day from high school—May Day. It’s a mental quirk that has come to define his entire life.

And then, the curveball. Enter Jennifer Nash.

Jennifer boasts the distinction of having been elected “May Queen” during sophomore year at Kingston High School, her uncommon charisma propelling her ahead of a host of resentful senior girls. Everyone in Kingston seems peculiarly fixated on this woman and what has become of her. She is the object of incessant curiosity and relentless gossip. Some place her in a successful position in Manhattan’s finance industry; others speculate that she became a high priced call girl, or the wife of a Dubai billionaire. All seem convinced, however, that her life has been extraordinary.

So why has she returned to make a menial temporary job at an insurance company in her hometown? She proves to be distinctly uncommunicative and self-contained. Predictably, this endears her to the humorless boss and alienates her from the workplace family.

But the May Queen holds secrets in her past, including a seemingly inconsequential link to Mike Petracca. The revelation of her hidden story will cause everyone to reevaluate their own histories, and more significantly, the import of events at Kingston High School, so many years ago.

In some ways, this is a two-character play in which Jennifer Nash and Mike Petracca discover how each has misinterpreted the life of the other. David and Gail serve as a kind of Kingston Chorus, observing, encouraging, and narrating this process.

Director Vivienne Benesch has done well to delineate between these two tracks of the script, guiding her central characters towards believability, while allowing the other characters who populate this world to indulge in broader comedy.

There are, however, moments when the shift in tone is jarring, as when Jenn bares her soul and reveals her painful past, only to have the other characters revert unbelievably to sitcom antics in the next instant. Or the uneasy comedy when the bully becomes the bullied in the inevitable “boss gets her comeuppance scene.”

Emma Duncan gives an elegantly controlled and exquisitely modulated performance as Jennifer Nash. We simultaneously see the gentle and charismatic girl, and the woman determined to climb back up from the blows life has dealt her.

Joe Tippett travels the difficult journey of Mike Petracca with great skill. This is a character who begins as a lovable jerk, but evolves into a rather scary stalker figure before his motivations are revealed and explained. Tippett handles these rapid fluctuations expertly.

Gregg Fallick and Mary Bacon assay their sitcom characters with the requisite good humor and charm, adeptly landing jokes with authority and ease.

Kate Eastman does as well as Nicole, the socially challenged boss.

The resolution of the play compensates for any rough edges in the script’s current form. By degrees, the conflicting life stories of Mike and Jennifer begin to align, and as in all good comedies, order is happily, if tentatively restored in the final moment of the play.

Design work by Lauren Helpern (scenery), Tracy Christensen (costumes), Scott Bolman (lighting), and Steven Cahill (sound) is appropriate, effective, and as necessary whimsically comical and entertaining.

ANTHONY CHASE is the theater editor for Artvoice and hosts “Theater Talk” on WBFO radio in Buffalo. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association of the Association Internationale des Critiques de Théâtre.