By Patrick O’Brien
I’d like to think, thanks to Underscore Theatre, when critiquing brand-spanking-new musicals, I hesitate to suggest making cuts to things that didn’t add up. Or, at least, I don’t think of them as cuts. It’s better to question what the writers were after when they went down that vague route, and ask whether there’s a point in the material they can perhaps amplify or expand upon to reach that point more firmly. The company’s philosophy is prescriptive, rather than prescriptive, that way.
In the case of their newest musical, Proxy, I still hesitate to suggest cuts, but not for any prescriptive reason. It’s a piece that needs cuts — really needs them — so much so, perhaps, that they would reveal just how strangely timid and anemic the musical is, deep down.
You wouldn’t derive “timid” or “anemic” from a pitch as this: Fifteen years ago, our lead Vanessa (Carisa Gonzalez) was stabbed and left for dead by her best childhood friend Ronnie. Now a stagnating clickbait writer on the skids, Vanessa’s going back home to interview Ronnie to find closure, save her job, maybe patch things up with her family.
And this is loosely based on the Slender Man stabbings, a thing that actually freaking happened. And we have something of a familiar name: Alexander Sage Oyen, who pops up every so often as a name to watch in contemporary MT. And billing it as “punk rock?” We’re sold on a lurid, prickly, gut-punching evening. But — and apt for a musical ripped from the headlines — the writers have a big problem with a lede like that. Obviously, they don’t bury it, not with a start like that. But with such a crazy hook, teeming with possibilities, they seem to tip-toe around the rabbit hole they’ve drawn up.
Most of the first act is spent setting up the estranged dynamic of Vanessa’s family: that is, mother Martha (Jenny Rudnick), who still tries to dote on her; stoner brother Sean (Kyle Kite); and a father whose funeral Vanessa did not attend. Introducing her family, in and of itself, is not the problem. In a musical about going home again, you need to go home, fair enough. If you’re shrewd, you can set that up in one song. Maybe two. Certainly not six, especially if one of those is, in effect, Martha asking Vanessa to pick up ice cream from Sonic Drive-In. Or if half of Sean’s songs are pot jokes.
Or maybe, a big maybe, you can have songs like this if their apparent normalcy is a cover, if the music and lyrics had drive and tension, sung through gritted teeth and false-smiling eyes. It’s “punk-rock,” after all, you gotta have some edge. Sadly, Sage Oyen, at least here, distressingly does little to break the wholly placid, wholly earnest four-four-time soft-pop sound that defines the “contemporary MT” stereotype. The few songs that do stand out — like “Fake IDs,” a song about taking a bad idea and making it worse — have a jagged swagger that throw all the syrup into sharp relief.
If the music isn’t propelling things, how about Doug (Michael Meija), Vanessa’s boss/on-again-off-again boyfriend, our sentient ticking clock? We can guess who he’s supposed to be — a devil on Vanessa’s shoulder; a ruthless pusher who’ll toss around her sanity like a poker chip to save his own ass. In the flesh, he’s more the one getting pushed. (The business model that their clickbait site DougFeed — DougFeed! — is also ill-defined, meaning there’s a few cogs missing from that ticking clock. There’s a board somewhere that’s apparently hunky-dory with the duo’s disappearing/reappearing journalistic integrity.)
So that just leaves Ronnie, our rabbit hole. We’ve made it all the way through the first act, we’re ready for Ronnie. Tessa Dettman brings the blank smile and uneasy serenity that’s called for, but also reels as she tells of the manifestation — the Proxy, the Faceless Man, she calls it — that drove her to do that horrible thing. Again, the writers get really close to diving head-first into some hard stuff…
But again, maddeningly, they demur. They’re content to lean on the familiar tropes of mental illness: the blank smile, the uneasy serenity, the all-white wardrobe, the gory paintings horrific in their childish crudeness. Ideas that beg to be explored — like how Ronnie mistakenly believed Vanessa could see the Proxy, too, when Vanessa was innocently indulging in an imaginary friend — go unnoticed as Vanessa’s itching for her Act One finale solo about How Everything She Knew Has Been Turned Upside-Down.
Such a huge upswell of emotion feels a little unearned, and not just because we’ve gone through a largely disposable first act and have another act to work through. More importantly, we’re no closer to learning who Vanessa, our narrator, really is. It’s not just defense mechanisms; she hasn’t encountered an obstacle she didn’t roll her eyes at or undercut with sarcasm. What is on paper a daunting struggle — to save her job, her relationship, and her personhood in one fell swoop — feels more like a great big annoyance. Her “I Want” song, where we expect her to take us into confidence, plays more like a “Would Be Great If I Weren’t Stuck in This Jam” song, keeping us at arm’s length.
Also, why is Vanessa narrating? Linking scenes together when the scenes themselves can’t is one thing. But narration is itself indicative of objective. Are we her sounding board as she writes her story in her head? Are we her safety valve when, all of a sudden, what she wrote needs an overhaul?
Gonzalez, for sure, has the chops to play a hip gunslinger in a musical thriller. Actually, I’d gladly see her and Kyle Kite in a musical thriller as siblings bonding over bad decisions. Hell, I’d like to see director Stephanie Rohr let loose on a musical thriller where her invention isn’t limited to a door trick. (It’s a very good door trick.) In PROXY, though, everyone’s hamstrung. Skirting around the big dark hole, they’re stuck with only Millennial quippery and Boomer bromides. Mother Martha — mother of the girl who was stabbed and left for dead at 12 — delivers a bewilderingly insensitive one-two punch when she implores Vanessa to consider how she feels about the whole situation, and with that consideration, to move on.
And no, the dead dad doesn’t figure into anything. His death isn’t tied to Vanessa’s tragedy. It was just textbook Stage IV Pathos Cancer.
Take Me, another new musical from this past year, was flabbergasting in its no-holds-barred loopiness, but it had a human heart jostling around in there. Proxy has the opposite problem: it’s nowhere near as wild a ride as the writers would have us believe, or as it ought to be if it wants to live. Cut? Yes. But will they find the heart within? Only if they’re willing to jump down the rabbit hole, into some deep, dark, scary realms of the human brain.
Underscore Theatre Company presents “Proxy” through November 24 at The Understudy, 4609 N. Clark Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.