Marielle Heller in Diary of a Teenage Girl. Photo by Jim Baldassare.
BOTTOM LINE: Beautifully designed and smartly directed, this wild exploration of the outer bounds of a young girl's experience will shock some and enthrall others.
There are labors of love, and then there is Marielle Heller and Diary of a Teenage Girl. When Heller read Phoebe Gloeckner's semi-autobigraphical graphic novel of unorthodox sexual awakenings in 1970s San Francisco, it was love at first sight, and her dogged pursuit of the stage rights is one for the record books. Heller worked night and day, bent every ear she could, and tapped the talents of a roster of high profile friends (her husband is a writer for Saturday Night Live), eventually putting together an impressive group of downtown theatre artists to make her dream come to life.
It is remarkable what one woman’s passion can create. Every aspect of the production now running at the über-cool 3LD Art & Technology Center (the theatre itself, a center of ultra-advanced multi-media performance, is worth the trip downtown) is full of love, devotion, and a collegial atmosphere that is hard not to like.
Much credit for that must go to Sarah Cameron Sunde, the Associate Director of the adventurous company New Georges, and Rachel Eckerling, a Francis Ford Coppola associate, who have teamed up to direct the piece, a rarity in the sometimes competitive world of new plays. Aided by a frankly enormous team of designers and crew, Ms. Sunde and Ms. Eckerling manage to cover all the bases fully, with great attention both to the psychological details of the performances and the technical demands of the sprawling physical production.
Inside a multi-tiered, shag-carpeted, arena-type stage that was constructed entirely for the production within the unforgivingly square walls of the theatre, scenic designer Lauren Halpern and costume designer Emily DeAngelis hit all the 1970s visual cues, down to the lime green pillows littering the floor on which the audience sits. Video designer C. Andrew Bauer makes wonderful use of Ms. Gloeckner’s original artwork from the book, but the many shaped 360-degree video screens are too chopped up for us to take all of it in. Marcelo Anez’s sound design works on many levels – depending on where you sit, you get entirely different takes on the story.
This loving atmosphere surrounds some very gritty and frank material. The play, like the book, emanates from the wildy promiscuous, prodigiously creative, often drug-fueled mind of Minnie, a fifteen year-old girl who has just begun having sex with her mother’s boyfriend. As the affair deepens (an odd thought, but Minnie and Monroe find a true connection despite their age difference and its attendant taboos), Minnie and her mother become unhinged, delving deeper into drugs and sex, with Minnie eventually on the meanest streets of San Francisco with a lesbian teen who pimps her out for Quaaludes and heroin.
The audience is led along this spiraling path by some stunning performances, particularly from Mariann Mayberry as Charlotte, Minnie’s boozy mother and Michael Laurence as Monroe, the hapless man they share. Mayberry fearlessly dives into the addled self-destructiveness of Charlotte, yet exudes enough fire and charm that we wholeheartedly believe her when she expresses her love for Minnie (is there anything these Steppenwolf actors can’t do?). Laurence is even more impressive, making Monroe an affable and amoral character – we like Monroe so much, that we actually are able to avoid thinking too deeply about what kind of man sleeps with a fifteen year old. The play is about Minnie, and Laurence’s honesty lets us concentrate on that.
Heller, the actress, makes a fetching Minnie, bright-eyed and clear even in the worst straights of her medicated journey of self-awakening. That she takes Minnie’s every emotion too seriously is in perfect keeping with the myopia of the teen years, but even more so with the reverence with which Heller, the writer, holds her source material.
And that might be my one quibble with the production. Minnie’s story is told with outrageous directness, and takes us inside a young girl’s coming-of-age in a way rarely seen our male-dominated commercial culture. Yet Minnie takes drugs, sleeps with many men (and some women) who are clearly not good for her, and risks her life in ways that could have gruesome consequence. This is hard, sharp stuff - effectively mirrored in the razor-edged lines of Gloeckner’s original art in the accompanying lobby display. Yet onstage, we are treated to Heller’s softer, more hearfelt love of the material, rather than the tougher hide of the material itself.
Heller, Sunde and Eckerling – each a successful, accomplished artist in her own right – clearly love Minnie and all her attendant rabble-rousing trouble, and see something of themselves in her journey. Like many a coming-of-age story told in many media by many men over many years (see The Red Badge of Courage or Catcher in the Rye or a host of others), this connection seems to have softened a few edges that might be better left steely.
(Diary of a Teenage Girl plays at 3LD Art & Technology Center, 80 Greenwich Street below Rector, through May 1st. Performances are every day except Tuesdays at 8pm. Tickets are $35 and are available at 3ldnyc.org or by calling 866.811.4111.)