by Loren Noveck · June 19, 2014
Indie Artists on New Plays #119 Loren Noveck comments on I'm Pretty Fucked Up part of Clubbed Thumb's Summerworks Festival at the Wild Project
Ariel Stess’s I’m Pretty Fucked Up (the second entry in Clubbed Thumb’s annual Summerworks Festival) is full of endearing characters, most of them high-school kids. Stess and the ensemble of actors (steered by director Kip Fagan) nail that particularly adolescent nexus of heartbreaking vulnerability and maddening cockiness, of disaffection mixed with passionate enthusiasm. Following three different clusters of teenagers as well as some of the adults on their high-school campus, though, the play sometimes scatters its energies. For all its warmth and charm, the pieces don’t quite come together—though each of its strands is heartfelt and emotionally rich.
April 20 (aka 4/20: an excuse to smoke a lot of pot) starts as a normal day at a New Mexico high school, or at least it seems that way: the Spanish teacher, Mrs. Gomez, giving a quiz in her portable classroom; a new couple, June and Bobby, making out behind said portable classroom; a bunch of other kids (Jared, Dan, and Isabel) skipping school to get high and pool their money for a Taco Bell run. But then there are the people wielding mysterious duffel bags: Tina, Kyle, and Kerry, with a plan to make “these fuckin’ robots” pay; and one of the school’s security guards, John, who also has a fraught relationship with the Spanish teacher, leaves rambling, anxious voicemails to his former therapist—and has stashed a handgun in that duffel, which he’s stowed under Mrs. Gomez’s classroom. (To me, it seemed clear from the beginning that these two sets of duffel bags weren’t part of the same project, but there might be some intended ambiguity there.) After a school shooting at his previous job, John has just gotten himself back on his feet, and while he’s emotionally raw, he also needs to keep it together. He’s trying to do the best job he can, but he’s got some secrets of his own (like the fact that he ran over the principal’s foot in a fit of rage last week).
Jared, Dan, and Isabel start by cutting one class, which evolves into an all-day excursion into the mountains. They’re stoned enough to find meaning in everything, but also to be incredibly distracted; they almost die three times on the road (deer, broken-down car, driving in the wrong lane). They each have their moments to shine: Isabel (Lauren Annunziata, with every emotional shift visible on her face) wants to be an archeologist, maybe, but most important, “I want to be like never fucking kind of boring, even if I start to look like a somewhat or really elegant like thirty-year-old, like my sister, I don’t even care, I just never wanna be like coming home and looking forward to staying in, and like looking forward to getting like cozy and clean.” Jared disappears into a reverie about traffic lanes. Dan (the haplessly earnest Seth Clayton), a slightly geeky, overthinking type has a delightful monologue on the ways in which he thought he was making romantic interest completely clear. They’ve been friends for what feels like forever, but there might also be some romantic/sexual undercurrents among them.
And their cutting school means they’re elsewhere when all the action happens: a lockdown on campus, spurred by a possible intruder (possibly wearing combat boots, according to the PA announcement from the principal) and possible gunfire. Mrs. Gomez winds up trapped in her classroom with one of her students, June, and June’s new boyfriend, Bobby, the most unruffled character in the play (as written and as played by Alexander Flores, with implacable good nature).
Scene by scene and beat by beat, it’s enjoyable in a meandering way; it’s very slow to build, lingering with one character or another for leisurely moments. Stess’s structure and Fagan’s handling of the intercut scenes work well to keep equal interest in all the strands. And its calculated lack of momentum allows for genuine shocks just by picking up the pace or taking a sharp narrative turn. But the lack of momentum also means it’s hard to tell the big surprises from the small ones. Too, the characters can feel a little opaque, with their emotions and behavior shifting all over the place. True, they’re mostly kids or people under duress, and thus predictably unpredictable—but it’s also hard to find a way to read them on anything more than a surface level.
The exception here is John, the reluctant hero, whose journey is the play’s spine—but this too feels a little diffuse with so much else going on. After so much time shifting among the different segments of the piece, the culminating scene, where everyone comes together in the wake of crisis, doesn’t feel entirely earned. The individual moments that make up the piece are wonderful, but the parts don’t coalesce to a fully satisfying whole.