At its core, the play is a conventional melodrama about death and angst and the sad lives of conflicted people. But something happens just about midway through the story that had me suddenly sitting up straighter in my seat, watching with keener interest the action onstage, and thinking back over every moment that had come before, looking for clues to what was unfolding before me.
Its superfluous subtitle, A Brief History of Helen of Troy, provides little more than a clever framing device for this story of teenaged Charlotte, a misfit whose mother has recently died. Her father is crushed with grief and has taken up drinking to numb his pain. Charlotte's high school friends are a bitter young gay boy and a popular, pretty airhead, neither of whom offer much in the way of consolation. Charlotte misses her mom and longs to be loved and admired; she attempts to draw attention to herself with several wrongheaded moves at gaining affection. She appears to be having an affair with her guidance counselor, whose pornographic Polaroids she carries with her to school. She fights with her BMOC boyfriend about oral sex, and with his cousin about whether or not he's gay. Each interaction ends in a shouting match. Life sucks, especially when you're a teenager.
Into what appears at first to be just another teen angst dramedy, Schultz has shoehorned some very dark commentary on mortality and about what happens to the people who survive us after death. He blends Charlotte's deep anger with a raw vulnerability that has us rooting for her, even when she's behaving like the dreadful creature she believes herself to be.
That's because young Willa Darian infuses Charlotte with such believable anxiousness and despair. Storming the stage like a cooped-up jaguar, she eventually explodes into a torrent of remorse, her words tumbling together, her arms hugging her torso as if she's afraid she'll burst. It's a stellar performance without which the play would belong to Cale Epps who, as Charlotte's father, rages and storms but never loses sight of a man destroyed by the loss of his wife. Would that director Ron May, who has otherwise done a superb job in bringing this story to the stage, had stopped Epps from using the Mamet-esque, rat-a-tat-tat rhythm with which he speaks his lines.
There are no also-ran performances here. Michelle Chin honors space cadet Valley girls everywhere with a perfectly one-dimensional recital that screams "Like, omigod!" even when she's not actually uttering that line. Both Aaron Wester and Benjamin Burt portray their characters — a confused gay teen and a horny jock, respectively — with subtle body language that conveys their archetypal characters before either speaks a word. And Benjamin Monrad expertly creates what amounts to two separate characters as the guidance counselor who may have something to hide.
These powerful characterizations and Schultz's supple use of language make for an entertaining, if not especially enlightening, story that packs a punch you probably won't see coming and definitely don't want to miss.