Are theater-goers in for a spate of young-women-behaving-badly opuses from distaff playwrights purporting to study the lamentable deportment? The signs aren't encouraging. A few months ago, 19-year-old Polly Stenham's That Face, imported from England by the Manhattan Theatre Club, began with two prep school girls torturing a third in a sorority initiation ritual and followed one of the tormentors home to an incestuous mother-brother entanglement that expanded into outrageous familial transgressions in every predictable fashion.
Now at Second Stage Uptown (McGinn/Cazale Theatre) we're given 29-year-old Leslye Headland's Bachelorette, which takes place in a hotel room the night before a wedding and depicts three sorta friends of the bride drinking, drugging and trashing their swanky, rose-petal-bedecked surroundings for the simple reason that they're privileged rich kids choking on advanced cases of entitlement. Only after the clear-headed bride arrives to catch her chums in an odd instance of flagrante delicto with a pair of available and willing guys does a familiar moral lesson kick in about what goes around coming around.
In Bachelorette, spiteful Regan (Tracee Chimo) invites self-loathing former prom queen Katie (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and uncertain Gena (Katherine Waterston) -- whom hefty bride Becky (Carmen M. Herlihy) expressly left off the wedding-invitation list -- to romp decadently around set designer Andromache Chalfant's lime-green-and-white VIP suite.
The minute the three begin swilling from individual Champagne bottles, any smart audience member knows the pristine room with its Central Park, Manhattan view isn't going to remain immaculate for long. Furthermore, the second it's mentioned that the bridal gown is behind an upstage closet door, any play-savvy attendee knows shocking damage is going to be done to the innocent-white garment, which, incidentally, has been supplied by no less a bride-related outlet than Kleinfeld.
In other words, three uninteresting figures -- each uninteresting in her own way -- come undone over an intermissionless 90-minute course. The two fellows -- Joe (Fran Kranz), a wallpaper hanger(!) and actually decent, and wiseacre Jeff (Eddie Kaye Thomas) -- add to the familiarly volatile mix, as Headland ostensibly writes about what and whom she knows in this "Gluttony" entry of an apparent Seven-Deadly-Sins series.
What she knows is that today's post-feminist young women have taken to acting and speaking as loosely as men traditionally have done in the sexual-expression field. Gena sees free-and-easy sexuality as a badge of honor and is so incensed at having her promiscuity questioned that she launches into a disquisition on fellatio and its nuances and how, when practiced expertly, it can lead to a regular recipient's finally popping the marriage question. In Headland's piece, her outburst strongly implies that throughout the man-woman power-play sweepstakes, women can handily dominate, if they only understand how.
That might have been a point in Headland's playwriting favor, but it doesn't appear to be what she's after as the young ladies -- whether in or out of Emily Rebholz's costumes or with mini-skirts hiked up -- relentlessly degrade themselves. The ugly group-wallow must be the dramatist's moralistic aim, but the result is closer to ineffective vulgarity. Headland thinks to redeem the obscene carrying-on by eventually revealing Gena as caring for the overdosed Katie. As written, however, Gena is merely a late-hippy enabler. And the eventual comeuppance that delayed-arrival Becky gives hard-hearted Regan is laughably operatic.
A play about waste -- of, among other things, young lives, good Champagne and audience time -- Bachelorette doesn't completely squander the talents of its six cast members, as directed with fervor by Trip Cullman. First among equals is Chimo, who in addition to looking like Patti LuPone's younger sibling, gives a properly imperious LuPone-like performance. Called Regan in, maybe, a bow to the poisonous King Lear off-spring, the role calls for a sangfroid that Chimo, continually pushing her long straight hair back, never has a problem offering.
Long-limbed Waterston (of the Waterston acting dynasty that includes dad Sam and siblings James and Elisabeth) plays Gena as if she were an egret who's lost her bearings. Keenan-Bolger, more familiar from musicals, makes the transition boldly, turning Katie into more of a recognizably pathetic soul than the lines deserve. Kranz and Thomas have the unsure yet cocky bearing of immature adults. Herlihy's sophisticated grit is commendable.
A final word about the irritating work: During it, Champagne-guzzling Katie does some on-stage regurgitating. This instance of what preppies used to call "worshiping at the porcelain shrine" is hardly an uncommon theater sight nowadays. Within the last couple of months, similar episodes of "arcing a bean" were included in Chloe Moss's This Wide Night and Dan Klores's Little Doc. Not to mention, of course, Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage.
What this says about society is up for grabs, although one possible interpretation is: The action set in motion by contemporary conspicuous consumption will inevitably provoke -- as Isaac Newton said in a different context -- an equal reaction. Bachelorette author Headland might claim it reflects nothing other than wide-spread bulimia among this era's young women. Go figure -- but also maybe supply characters in upcoming plays with sufficient throw-up bags.