To understand what Katie May’s play Manic Pixie Dream Girl is about, it’s helpful to know what a manic pixie dream girl is. Coined by Onion A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin, the term describes the cinematic trope of a free-spirited, oddball beauty who exists only to draw the brooding male protagonist out of his shell. Think Natalie Portman in Garden State, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Melanie Griffith in Something Wild, or Goldie Hawn and Zooey Deschanel in pretty much anything. If you don’t know the type, it’s explained at length in the play.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl was commissioned by PlayGround, a San Francisco company with a pool of writers that writes short plays about an assigned theme every month, a few of which are selected to develop into full-length plays. Staged at American Conservatory Theater’s new Costume Shop Theater near Civic Center, MPDG‘s world premiere is co-produced by PlayGround with a handful of individuals, including the playwright and one of the actors.
One of the primary hooks of MPDG is that it’s “a graphic novel play.” The main character is a graphic novelist, although it’s unclear whether he’s ever actually published a graphic novel. He’s a sometime painter in comic-book style who hasn’t painted a thing since his girlfriend left him, and who only really took up painting to hook up with her in the first place. He’s months behind in his rent because he keeps putting off a gallery show for which he spent the advance months ago. He is, in short, a loser.
Played by Joshua Roberts as a peevish, entitled layabout, Tallman isn’t even a loveable loser. We first see him slapping his ex-girlfriend, and the whole rest of the play is his way of explaining the extenuating circumstances, because he insists he’s not the kind of guy who slaps girls. He is, however, the kind of guy who shows up at his ex’s office party drunk and uninvited, railing about what a corporate sellout she is. So of course when he meets a mysterious, non-verbal young woman who reacts with childlike wonder to everything she sees, he takes her home to be his live-in lover.
Lyndsy Kail’s Lilly is like a frolicsome but skittish forest creature, in wide-eyed perplexity at all human customs. She’s also the only one who wears colors, and bright ones at that, as Antonia Gunnarson’s costumes and director Jon Tracy’s set are otherwise all in shades of gray. Lilly’s pockets are full of nothing but Starburst wrappers, which she strews everywhere, bringing color to the world.
Michael Barrett Austin is sympathetic but no-nonsense as best friend Porter, habitual voicer of harsh truths. Liz Anderson is a hard-boiled badass as ex-girlfriend Jackie, and Lucas Hatton is amusingly smarmy as her new boyfriend Rick and hilariously laconic as an eavesdropping bartender.
Although it’s only 70 minutes without intermission, the pace is surprisingly slow in Tracy’s staging, but there may be extenuating circumstances. The production makes frequent use of projections of Rob Dario’s comic-book style drawings of scenes and characters, but on Sunday’s press night the computer controlling the slideshow wasn’t working properly, so the projections were scant and irregularly timed. Some of the nods to comic book style feel strangely out of place, such as when Tallman and Porter mime slow-motion stage combat for no apparent reason.
Pushing its pop-culture references pretty hard, the play is ultimately anticlimactic. It’s not hard to see the twist coming about what’s up with Lilly, because there’s only a handful of ways that story can end and they’ve all been done before. It is a popular trope, after all, and picking it apart is popular, too.
Aside from our antihero’s vocation, there’s not much in the story that lends itself to the comic book format. It’s all about inaction, not action. Other characters say Tallman romanticizes his own story, but it never really seems larger than life, just roughly sketched.
Manic Pixie Dream Girl runs through February 10, 2013 at the ACT Costume Shop in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit manicpixiedreamgirl.org.
All photos by Chesca Rueda.