Less Than "Peerless"

By Geary Danihy

Any parent of a high school junior living in suburbia knows the pressure his or her student is under, pressure primarily created by the drive to get into the best school possible. The syndrome seems universal, but some students, and their parents, take it into over-drive, making admission into “The College” something of a quest for the Holy Grail. Success means a heavenly future is all but insured; failure means eternal damnation. Such is the background for “Peerless,” a play by Jiehae Park receiving its world premiere at Yale Repertory Theatre under the direction of Margot Bordelon. The title is unfortunate, for though the play offers some enjoyable moments, it’s essentially a one-trick pony with the Bard riding along as sidekick.

Against a somewhat austere set created by Christopher Thompson that serves as a high school hallway, a classroom, a bedroom and living room (and finally the hallowed halls of “The College”), twin sisters, M (Tiffany Villarin) and L (Teresa Avia Lim) plot and connive to gain admittance to their dream college. The only problem is, there are few slots, and one has been taken by one of their fellow students, D (JD Taylor), a nerdy sort who, the sisters believe, truly doesn’t deserve to be crowned king of the college contest.

M is somewhat ambivalent about whether she should usurp D’s place, but her sister urges her on, and here we have strains of the Bard a la “Macbeth.” Standing in for the three “black and midnight hags” is Dirty Girl (Caroline Neff), who smokes, swears and dresses as if she is planning to be nominated for Biker Queen of the Year. Yet she has prescient powers and suggests to M that M’s dreams will be fulfilled if only she take hold and act. Then there is BF (Christopher Livingston), whose function is unclear, but he’s apparently there to stand in for the student body.

There’s a lot of potential in “Peerless.” The opening scene, an extended running argument between the two sisters, with the actors delivering their lines in machine-gun fashion, often biting into each other’s lines, captures the essence of college-crazed teens. There’s the comparison of SAT scores, the lengthy list of AP courses taken, the boasting of GPAs, and the impressive recital of extra-curricular activities, all delivered in a semi-frantic manner that exquisitely captures the manic nature of this pursuit of the treasured acceptance letter, but then the Scottish play starts to sneak in, and what might have been a considered analysis of the insanity currently rampant in thousands of households, with 17-year-olds becoming sleep deprived as they reach for the golden ring, becomes more and more unbelievable, and irrelevant.

Suffice it to say, there will eventually be a “damned spot” that cannot be expunged and, in true Shakespearean fashion, bodies will be strewn about before the final curtain -- all to what purpose remains to be seen. That not much is actually going on up on the stage -- there’s an extended high school prom scene that, in and of itself, is quite enjoyable, but it seems to belong to another play, or perhaps to be an outtake from “Pretty in Pink -- is masked by the overly intrusive projections designed by Shawn Boyle and the frenetic lighting created by Oliver Wason. The visual pyrotechnics urge you to believe that there is import to all of this. There isn’t.

Forgetting about the Macbeth-Lady Macbeth burden the two sisters have to bear, when Lim and Villarin go at it, as they do quite often, the stage lights up and you get the sense of where this play might have gone. When they are just being teenagers, they are terrific, but when they have to plot dark and dirty deeds, well, we’re into metaphor-land here, and it trivializes what has become, as many psychologists and sociologist have noted, a serious situation. One need only look at the cover article of The Atlantic’s December issue -- “The Silicon Valley Suicides” -- to understand the nature of the problem and the devastating effect it is having on some of the best and brightest teenagers.

That the drive to succeed at all costs, a drive that is ruining young lives, cries out to be dramatized goes without saying. Some have gone so far as to describe this hyper-pressure to gain acceptance at elite colleges and universities as a sickness in the nation’s soul. Unfortunately, “Peerless” settles for pseudo-allusions and a lot of flash and bang. One can only wonder what Arthur Miller, if he was alive today, might have done with the overwhelming burden being placed on our teenagers to succeed. What words would he have written for the Requiem, and whose passing would be mourned?

“Peerless” runs through December 19. For tickets or more information call 203-432-1234 or go to www.yalerep.org

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