Fear and loathing in Manhattan

'U.S. Drag' is edgy but shallow

In Dragon Theatre's new production of Gina Gionfriddo's black comedy "U.S. Drag," the world is a dark and desperate place, full of narcissists, sociopaths, fools and cynics. Gionfriddo's original production notes accurately call the piece "a play about fear and terror."

Lead characters Allison (Olivia Haas) and Angela (Liz Frederick) could have stepped out of a looking-glass version of the TV show "Girls." Best friends since college, they're scraping by in Manhattan, trying to manage the crushing disappointment that is post-graduate life in the real world. Though they purportedly graduated from Vassar College with honors, they put on ditzy, party-girl personas and spend most of their time clubbing, looking for potential sugar daddies.

Allison refuses to get a job, thinking herself deserving of better things than the ordinary, the entry level, minimum wage. She wants, she says, to have the elusive "it," without having to do anything to earn it; to be well-known and well off by virtue of being in the right place at the right time -- or, rather, the wrong place (she's like an Internet rant about Millennials and spoiled "kids these days" incarnate). She fetishizes crime and tragedy victims and their associates, seeing their pain as opportunities to cash in. Haas is rubber-faced and skilled in comic reactions, playing Allison as vapid and emotionally overwrought.

Angela, the de facto leader of the two, is cool-headed, pragmatic and quick to find a potential lucrative scam in every situation, and Frederick's shrewdly vicious performance is a standout. Her Angela is cold and calculating, and yet, with the clueless loonies that surround her, one can't help but partially relate to her exasperation.

The duo have a horrible roommate, Ned (a shrill and hammy William Gaorin), a Wall Street worker who is socially inept and prone to insults, temper tantrums and fits of weeping. He allows the girls to live with him on the unfulfilled promise that they'll bring friends, parties and a future wife to him. He is the worst sort of "beta male" hating and judging women because he fears them.

Allison and Angela become members of a community advocacy group called "Stay Away From Ed" (SAFE), hoping to earn the reward for information leading to the capture of "Ed," a mysterious perpetrator attacking people around the city. There they meet group organizer Evan (Peter Ray Juarez), whose entire identity is wrapped up in his role as a "helper." He's a familiar type, full of therapeutic buzzwords and earnestness but little tangible skill.

The girls also meet Christopher (the excellent Josiah Frampton), an author of a sort-of memoir (he says it's true, just not exactly literally). A recovering addict, he's a wannabe martyr and an emotional mess who quivers with needs and neuroses and tries to turn every conversation into a self-pity party. However, he also proves insightful on the damaged psyches of the others.

The concept of "help" is a recurring theme in the play, but in this paranoid world, "help" is something to be avoided and indifference cultivated instead. "Ed" preys upon his lonely victims by asking them for help, which is why SAFE encourages its members to avoid involvement (sample slogan: "A Good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan").

Most of "U.S. Drag"'s characters are unpleasant. Its two most likeable figures are murder-obsessed, sweetly creepy (or creepily sweet?) oddball James (Jeremy Ryan) and chirpy Mary (Lauren Hayes), a recent "Ed" victim who sees her attack as a life-defining event.

The title "U.S. Drag" comes from a William Burroughs reference to a sense of creeping doom and malaise in modern America, a mood definitely captured by the script and production. Fear and terror aside, the play is a comedy, and its barbed satirical pokes at ineffective community-support groups, creative nonfiction and the cult of celebrity crime hit their targets, although it all wears thin after a while. The writing grows heavy-handed and obvious at times, such as when Evan literally declares, "I have to help! I'm a helper!" This, combined with the one-dimensional characterizations, lends the production an amateurish air.

Though it has its funny and thought-provoking moments, "U.S. Drag" seems to be, like its characters, unable to rise above its basic shallowness and inflated sense of self-importance. As when waking after an unsettling dream, one leaves the theater happy to break the mean-spirited spell, ready to return to the possibility of a kinder, gentler world.

What: "U.S. Drag" by Gina Gionfriddo

Where: Dragon Theatre, 2120 Broadway St., Redwood City

When: Until Feb. 28, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m.

Cost: $25-$30

Info: Go to www.dragonproductions.net

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