Joshua Roberts and Lyndsy Kail in MANIC PIXIE DREAM GIRL.
BOTTOM LINE: This unusual play is engrossing due in part to its use of the graphic novel style.
The term "manic pixie dream girl" was coined by film critic Nathan Rabin to describe the cinematic archetype of a quirky, off beat woman who enters the life of a male character to inspire a passion and optimism for life he originally was missing. The MPDG has little development or back story of her own, as her function is to affect the main character, not to have her own narrative (think Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State). Playwright Katie May took this archetype to inspire her play of the same title, this time giving a bit of a backstory to the strange woman who inspires the protagonist.
Tallman (Joshua Roberts) is a painter and graphic novelist who is still brooding over a recent split with his ex-girlfriend Jackie (Liz Anderson). Using Jackie as his muse, Tallman had been inspired to paint and was able to secure a show at a gallery. Jackie and Tallman both meet while struggling to get by as a bartender and waitress with artistic ambitions. Jackie, however, jumps ship when she secures a full time job at a bank and quickly moves her way up the corporate ladder. Jackie loses her interest in artistic aspirations and instead focuses on her financial security, becoming disgusted with the poverty stricken bohemian lifestyle she lives with Tallman. Tallman and Jackie have an argument about the role of an artist in society and when Tallman criticizes her for choosing a bigger paycheck over artistic expression she tells him that it is people like her who support artists and buy their work.
Jackie drops Tallman for successful real estate agent Rick (Antonio Alvarez, who also plays other small roles in the play and manages to make each role seem like a completely different person). Tallman finds himself depressed and unable to paint, pouring down Guinesses with his best friend Porter (Michael Barrett Austin). To make things worse, Tallman finds out that Rick is buying his building and as Tallman hasn’t paid his rent in three months, Rick sends him an eviction notice. Tallman is in the depths of despair when Lilly (Lyndsy Kail), a mysterious red head, enters the bar. As Tallman describes her, “She could be a ballerina, or a librarian, or a ballerina dressed like a librarian, with poor fashion sense." Lilly doesn’t speak a single word, but stares at everything in wonderment. Tallman orders her a beer and she attempts to pay for it with a pocketful of Starburst wrappers. Lilly follows Tallman home where they behave like children, building pillow forts and feasting on Starbursts and Chinese takeout. Lilly’s awe for everything the world has to offer inspires Tallman and he finds himself once again able to paint. However, when Tallman sees a news story about a woman missing from a group home he finds himself facing some big decisions.
One of the most noticeable aesthetic aspects of Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the fact that it attempts to merge the aesthetics of graphic novels, video games, and cartoons into a live play (perhaps drawing inspiration from the film Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, which merged these aesthetics onto film.) A large screen at the back of the stage has drawings projected as the comic book version of the actions unfolding onstage. Actors also enter the stage in a stylized manner which makes them seem animated. They also make page-turning motions when the play switches from one scene to another, a cute gimmick that emphasizes the graphic novel theme.
Aside from the overall appealing visuals of the play, the cast also helps to make the story engrossing. Joshua Roberts is appealing and convincing as Tallman, the underdog hero. Lyndsy Kail shines as Lilly and manages to convey strong emotions despite not uttering a single line. The storyline of Manic Pixie Dream Girl feels like the first act of a play, as though the story isn’t quite finished. Nonetheless, I was completely riveted by this lively, unusual work from start to finish.
(Manic Pixie Dream Girl played at C.O.W., 21 Clinton Streets, through August 16, 2013. Tickets were $15 in advance, $18 at the door and were available at fringenyc.org or by calling 866-468-7619.)