With its morbid humor and subplot about blind ambition among high schoolers, Be Aggressive could easily be mistaken for a combination of Heathers and Bring It On. But playwright Annie Weisman shows less interest in cheerleaders than the search for meaning in contemporary America, and at its best, Be Aggressive has the wit and breadth of a satiric novel like Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections on a sugar high.
At first glance, Vista Del Sol appears to be a Southern Californian paradise, with its high school cheer squad and Spanish stucco ocean-view homes. But a hit-and-run driver has taken the life of one of the cheerleader's mothers, casting a pall over the suburban paradise -- and putting a crimp in back-to-school cheerleading practice. Down from five girls to four, the cheerleaders lack a crucial letter in their Game One Greeting Cheer, which now only spells out "H! E! L! L! ... ."
With her mother's loss, 17-year-old Laura (Cheri Christian) finds herself in a kind of hell, albeit a trendy, tasteful one. Mom's death only emphasizes the family's empty lifestyle and the weakness of their emotional connections. Laura's scenes with her shrewd, grieving younger sister (a canny Rachel Mewbron) and their distant father, Phil (Jeff Portell), hang with petty hostilities that interfere with their needs for mutual support.
The quiet household tensions sharply contrast with the broad, mean-girl comedy of the cheerleading scenes. But the squad's spirited cries and platitudes -- "Believe to achieve!" -- can't drown out a comparable hollowness. Likewise, Laura's monologues about her after-school job at a smoothie shop sum up the corporate blandness of Southern California health culture, where you get your "spirituality" in a smoothie additive called "Kabbalah Cran."
Laura becomes best friends with spoiled, scarily committed cheerleader Leslie, whom Megan Hayes plays as a hilariously self-centered Beverly Hills brat. Leslie resents her mother (Allison Fleming) for countless misdeeds, like buying a Lexus without the adjustable headrest option.
Leslie and Laura occupy the bottom spot in the cheerleader pecking order, but they come to find purpose in "cheer" as a noble sport and a way of life, not just a shortcut to popularity. Leslie urges Laura to join her in stooping to any method to attend a tony cheerleader training camp, even blackmailing their parents: "What vulnerability does your father have left?" she asks.
By the end of Act One, you're prepared for the kind of dark spoof in which obsessed youngsters kill their way to the top, but Weisman doesn't view teenagers as amoral monsters (despite evidence to the contrary). Instead, Be Aggressive's second half makes a detour that lacks the kick of the first part but proves, nonetheless, realistic and respectable.
When Leslie and Laura steal cash and a car to drive cross-country to the cheerleading camp, their road trip provides plenty of satiric grist. The two Valley Girl-types face the wasteland of middle America, from the ravages of motel hair-care products to the processed horrors of truck stop food. But more importantly, they discover that outside their protective West Coast cocoon, there's nothing between them and their own sadness.
Be Aggressive's action operates more by intuition than rigid dramatic rules. Weisman turns cheerleading into a Greek chorus of sorts, particularly in a dreamlike scene in which the cheerleaders chant a kind of beat poem about their powerful sexuality. In a phone conversation, Phil and Judy, the play's "grown-ups," spontaneously let loose a rhyming cheer that expresses their own loneliness.
But Weisman doesn't settle for turning her characters into cartoons, and though they go to extremes, they express believable feelings. When Phil asks Laura if she can handle the grocery shopping, his daughter recalls how Mom used to do it. "I know her pattern," she explains, the simple detail indicating the imprint her mother's life left on Laura and the other people around her.
Christian finds her role's airhead punch lines and mournful epiphanies, but she has difficulty keeping up with the play's shifts in tone. We don't really recognize Laura the slang-speaking cheerleader to be the same person as Laura the sensitive, brooding sister or Laura the hip smoothie-shop worker. They should be different facets of one character, but instead feel like three entirely different people because Christian doesn't fully integrate them.
Even with the prolonged blackouts between scenes, Rachel May directs a crisp production that is alert to the play's cruel one-liners and smart insights. Despite its barbed comedy, Be Aggressive finds sympathy for the low self-esteem of high school girls (and everyone else) who seek answers in the wrong places, from cheerleading to consumerism. Be Aggressive suggests that false confidence can be self-destructive, and that maybe the only thing the teens have to fear is cheer itself.
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