In an interview this year with Playbill.com, writer Kathryn Walat tipped her hand on her social standing during high school. “Everything is high stakes” at that stage of life, she said, “so it's the perfect setting for drama.” The extremes in that statement make Walat sound like a bit of a teen outcast, having experienced high school as the defining, incredibly shallow place it can be. Survive it on your own terms, and you'll have mastered maybe the gravest test of self-esteem you'll ever face.
That's what's behind MOXIE Theatre's current West Coast premiere of Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen, Walat's story about Longwood High's third most popular sophomore, her foray into geekdom and its effect on her status in Longwood's inner and outer circles. Vick joins the school's five-member math team as the only girl, and the controversies follow, complete with the backroom politics that led to her admission in the first place.
Stay with me. This piece isn't as banal as it sounds, not by a long shot. Director Jennifer Eve Thorn sees Walat's language for what it is—wordy and simple—and her gift for situational comedy colors that dialogue in exactly the right context. Writer and director complement one another, and that's what makes these characters the surprisingly fun people they are.
The play isn't about math contests so much as about raging hormones, with their owners desperately trying to fit in. A math club is one of the last places you'd want to find yourself in that effort—but for the four males, it's the ideal setting, because it spells the difference between social contact and adolescent obscurity. Where else can twitty Max (Jesse Allan Moore) confess his attraction to best friend Franklin (Joseph Dionisio) without fear of decapitation? Who else but anal club honcho Peter (Tim Parker) can come out of nowhere to turn snooty Vickie's head on a dime? And where else would wide-eyed freshman Jimmy (Luke Marinkovich) feel at ease peeing his pants at the thought of the basketball team captain? Walat rarely takes a breath as she poses the answers, but her dialogue is light and on point without ingratiating the characters to the audience.
Those big fat speeches feed Thorn's best qualities. Her work is driven not so much by ideas as by words and their illustrations. She's on top of just about every nuance here, coaxing inflections and gestures precisely at Walat's incessant bidding. Watch Marinkovich steal the show—his top-heavy, totally yesterday hair punctuates Jimmy's gangliness and panic-drenched voice. Nicole Monet has Vickie's braying vocals down pat, her pinwheel eyes disappearing into her head with each shit-eating grin. High school social hierarchies live and die by that kind of affectation, and so does this show.
Thorn and Walat aren't particularly conceptual artists, but then, Victoria Martin doesn't stake itself to any particular concepts. It reads eminently well as a meat-and-potatoes wordfest (marked by a tight tech effort to boot in this production), and Thorn takes it from there with her unrelentingly meat-and-potatoes approach to the characters. Very, very good.This review is based on the opening-night performance of Dec. 1. Victoria Martin: Math Team Queen runs through Dec. 16 at The Lyceum Space, 79 Horton Plaza, Downtown. $18-$30. 619-544-1000 or www.moxietheatre.com.
Diamonds in the rough
It says here that the set of New Village Arts' world-premiere Off the Ground is made of 95-percent recyclable materials. That's pretty easy to figure—old magazines and newspapers are spilling out everywhere, and the copious wood fixtures and two Christmas trees will likely live another day in another form once the show's over. It's also one of the more interesting things this show has going.
The script by young Amy Chini and Tom Zohar builds off itself nicely, Charlie Riendeau's a kick as Grandpa Dick and Joshua Everett Johnson shows his mettle as an actor's director—but these good qualities sit inside an unremarkable concept about a family spoiling for a fight over Christmas and then making up. I recommend it, but not with much holiday cheer. Off the Ground runs through Dec. 23 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787-B State St., Carlsbad. $15-$26. 760-433-3245 or www.newvillagearts.org.