If the Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Competition serves as the Alliance Theatre's Research and Development Department, then its latest world premiere production, Julia Brownell's Smart Cookie, may represent an alteration in the secret formula.
Inaugurated in 2003 and endowed by the Kendeda Foundation the following year, the program invites students of 30 graduate playwriting programs across the country to submit their work. The winning play receives a full production on the Hertz Stage, finalists get high-profile staged readings, and the Alliance helps discover and cultivate some of the country's most impressive new writers. This commitment to new work probably helped the Alliance secure its Regional Theater Tony Award in 2007.
Previous winners of the Kendeda competition have not lacked for ambition, touching on such heavyweight historical subjects as the French-Algerian War and the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Plays don't even have to win to make a splash: In 2006, Actor's Express produced Megan Gogerty's controversial Love Jerry, a musical with themes of pedophilia, after the play became a Kendeda finalist. To date, the reach of the plays has exceeded the grasp of several of the winners, as if the judges prefer to honor ambition and thematic breadth while excusing some clunky construction.
Smart Cookie, the fifth Kendeda winner, feels like a 180-degree turn from the others, and not just because it's a comedy set in contemporary America. Compared to the avant-garde flourishes of last year's In the Red and Brown Water, Smart Cookie proves almost aggressively conventional – the kind of script that could make the transition to film or television with only cosmetic rewrites. But who ever said that a sturdy narrative structure and funny one-liners were bad things?
Courtenay Collins plays "Cookie" Walsh, the kind of contemporary American aristocrat who's lived most of her life in Manhattan's Upper East Side. Cookie serves on prestigious boards, organizes fundraisers such as the "Testicular Cancer Ball" and generally serves as one of the engines of the Manhattan social scene. We first see her taking some uncharacteristic downtime during a spa day, but a call from her son Spencer (Blake Lowell) disrupts first her calm, then her preconceived notions about her life.
Sixteen-year-old Spencer returns home from Andover with Ana (Rebecca Blumhagen), an exchange student from Spain carrying his child. Initially flummoxed that Spencer got involved with a girl from outside their rigid social circle, Cookie switches to a bullying form of crisis management and insists that the girl get an abortion. When Ana protests that it's against her religion, Cookie counters, "It's against everyone's religion, but everyone does it."
Brownell reveals a gift for sharp quips of the Paul Rudnick variety, such as Cookie's complaint that she has a new driver: "Sergei went back to Russia to be with his family – it was heartbreaking!" Collins crafts a credible performance that gets big laughs with little details like the moan she emits midsentence while talking on the phone during a deep-tissue massage. The actress manages to keep such an oversized personality and drama queen from turning into caricature. If anything, Collins comes across as slightly too grounded for a woman so obsessed with trivialities and prone to lament, "People will think I'm a terrible mother!" Collins' performance seems less worried about hitting punch lines than exploring Cookie's mixed feelings and motivations.
Nancy Lemenager provides an opposite characterization as Cookie's best friend, Bitsy, who disproves the adage "You can't be too rich or too thin." Like an air-headed supporting role from "Absolutely Fabulous," Bitsy serves as a portrait of self-absorption and a font of observations, "I heard of a girl who had an abortion shower!" Uproarious in her first scene, Bitsy hits the same comedic notes with every appearance and obsessive gag about dieting.
As Spencer, Lowell is also inclined to overplay his character's whiny, sullen aspects, but fortunately the production gives him some deeper moments with Ana and his father (Larry Larson). Larson's captain of industry tends to glide through the family problems, dispense domestic wisdom with above-it-all aplomb and then go off on business trips.
Cookie's scenes with Ana provide the heart of the play, as the older woman discovers she can't intimidate or bribe the girl, despite the offer of a kingly donation to her church in Madrid. Cookie calls Spain a Third World country (because everywhere's the Third World compared to Manhattan), but generally the play avoids cheap, culture-clash situations. Cookie gradually re-examines her own values, questions who her friends really are, and eventually admits that she can't control some things in life.
Directed by Jeremy B. Cohen, Smart Cookie seems to have less in common with the previous Kendeda winners, but feels like a kindred spirit with Managing Maxine, an Alliance world premiere from last fall. Both plays happened to feature Collins and Larson as a married couple, and scenes of women of a certain age half-dressed to convey sexuality as well as emotional vulnerability. Likeable plays, Cookie and Maxine both seem far more commercially viable than the emotionally violent, downbeat history lessons the Kendeda competition has honored before.
Smart Cookie raises a question about playwriting competitions: Should they support the writers that push the craft in new directions, or those more likely to attract audiences? If the previous winners served nutritious but bitter meals, Brownell's comedy is a cookie in more ways than one.
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