The new original play Me Three: A Guide to New Beginnings by Lenny Schwartz could charitably be described as genre-defying, swinging between farce and serious social critique, or less charitably as careening wildly from one random thing to another. What could be a passable magical-realist comedy – the advertising describes it as “darkly funny and unabashedly crass” – is frequently interrupted by ultra-serious recitations of experiences of sexual assault and harassment, and in my opinion (at the risk of committing political heresy) each detracts from the other in this dramatic setting.
On the one hand it is difficult to write this review without at least some spoilers, but on the other hand that task is made easier because for half of the play I had no idea what was going on.
The dialogue is clever and witty, filled with numerous Easter eggs that allude to everything from the Transformers series to the Amazing Criswell. There is engaging wordplay: At one point a character describes a situation using the Yiddish word “verkakte” (literally, “full of shit”), and later on another character unsuccessfully attempts to echo that as “fruit cocktail.” There are jokes about the plays of Samuel Beckett, mentioning Endgame and Happy Days – the latter a play where the main character is buried in sand – but it takes a really twisted theater geek to connect that to the similar situation in The Silence of the Lambs: “If I put you into a hole in the ground and then lowered down a basket, would you put the lotion on it?”
The titular #MeThree movement is started by Betty (Jamie Lyn Bagley) as the logical successor to the #MeToo movement, and the play opens with three uniformed women – Fran (Mindy Britto), Andrea (Meg Taylor Roth), Boomer (Lizita Depina) – wearing “#MeThree” arm bands and carrying handguns, arresting male movie star Buck (Mark Perry). The audience is told by the narrator Josh (Derek Laurendeau) that Buck had consensual sex with all three women, but one falsely accused him of assault and then the others leveled similar false accusations after seeing news reports. But, the narrator further explains, there is a fourth woman (Emily Lamarre) who was in fact sexually assaulted by Buck because “She said no and nobody ever told Buck no before.”
We learn that #MeThree is a movement of vigilantes who arrest men and deport them without trial to an island. Josh explains that the United States is a “hate fueled nightmare” and a “Dumpster fire.” Betty defends her movement: “We need to lock up all of the men.” And that’s just the first three minutes of the play.
Betty is accosted and propositioned by clueless men Ralph (Daniel Martin), Dennis (Sri Dopp), and Beetle (Michael Capalbo), each annoying and offensive for different reasons. She explains that there is no such thing as innocence: “That doesn’t apply here. Because in males? They’re all evil. It’s in their genetic makeup.” Circumstances lead to Josh being arrested and sent to the island, his demands for a lawyer laughed at by Betty who explains there is no court and no trial, but Josh manipulates the situation so that Betty gets sent to the island, too. On the island, Josh and Ralph meet Amy (Victoria Paradis), a stereotypical crazy-stalker-girlfriend type.
We are introduced to Queen Mary II (Anastasia LaFrance) who has named herself after Queen Mary I of England, commonly known as “Bloody Mary,” as a menstruation joke. (The playwright may not realize there was an actual Queen Mary II of England, who ruled with King William III – “William and Mary” – following the Glorious Revolution.) It’s effectively impossible to explain what happens after that, but it involves everything from blowing up the island to weird medical experiments. It was at this point, to be honest, that I completely lost track of the plot. Part of the fault may be my own, as the entrances of the queen were accompanied by theatrical fog so thick that it sent me into coughing fits for several minutes at a time, and nearly all of her dialogue was shouted so loudly that I could not understand what was said.
Back on the island, Betty and Josh decide to join forces to escape, and Stockholm syndrome kicks in to provide an opportunity for them to converse seriously and get to know each other – perhaps the most bizarre “meet cute” I’ve recently seen in theater – discovering that they are both severely emotionally wounded. The dialogue becomes not only sane but sparkling; Josh mocks Betty: “I picture you enjoying films with British people drinking tea and eating crumpets.”
Yet another plot thread opens up like a yawning chasm as the characters fall into it, led by wealthy misogynist Ronald Broadway (Michael Thurber) who holds televised mass rallies saying that women are inferior to men and should know their place, as a result of which he needs bodyguards (Nathan Suher, Perry). The character is intended as an obvious echo of Donald Trump and his “grab ‘em by the pussy” approach to women.
What the play gets right is the main plot line with Betty and Josh: It is a genuine accomplishment for a playwright to create two intelligent and articulate antagonists, and their search for common ground is honest and appealing, each softening the other as they come to a real understanding. Martin as Ralph is hilarious with timing worthy of a stand-up comedian. Paradis as Amy is surprisingly realistic being “batshit crazy.”
What the play gets wrong is pretty much everything else. Introducing serious narratives of sexual assault experiences simply does not fit at all and proves distracting from the main essentially comic theme; it seems almost as if they are there because the playwright is begging the audience, “Please don’t hate me.” Queen Mary II is an overused plot device whose influence on the course of events could just as well have been off-stage, but the script falls in love with her as comic relief; that proves unfair to LaFrance in the role, who is called upon to act so over-the-top that the character literally disappears in the noise and fog. Ronald Broadway is likewise grafted onto the rest of the play, a cartoonishly evil character impairing the legitimate ambiguity of the issues raised by Betty and Josh; Thurber does what he can, and his impeccable theatrical diction saves the screaming match with the queen from being totally incomprehensible. And, unfortunately, I could not make out anything said by Dopp in his two minor roles.
Laurendeau and Bagley almost get a Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn thing going with their brilliant acting, very much evoking a classic “battle of the sexes” dichotomy over the legitimacy of the #MeToo movement, each effectively articulating their opposing viewpoints, but Desk Set or Adam’s Rib this is not. (The Broadway character explicitly references the original Adam’s rib story: “You were created from our rib. We want it back now.”) Josh’s view that #MeToo has ruined reputations and destroyed careers as a result of mere allegation and Betty’s view that everybody is guilty and deserves punishment would constitute a bona fide intellectual dispute.
The real problem is that I have no idea what the play is trying to do or say, and I suspect the playwright may share that problem. There is an inherent, perhaps insurmountable difficulty in a play about the #MeToo movement being taken seriously if written by a man, and that, in turn, leads to a comparable difficulty in writing a review, but everyone is and should be entitled to their opinion if they are willing to back it up with rational argument rather than identity politics. Ultimately, the end of the play makes no sense at all, resolving the plot lines in almost comic-book fashion without actually resolving any of the substantive issues raised. It’s not good to leave a play thinking “Why did I watch this?” or, even worse, “What did I just watch?”
Me Three: A Guide to New Beginnings, a world premiere, written and directed by Lenny Schwartz, performed by Daydream Theater Company at RISE Playhouse, in the auditorium of the Morning Star Masonic Lodge, 142 Clinton St, Woonsocket. Mature subject matter: Audience members must be at least 17 years old. Through Apr 27. About 2h15m including one intermission. Refreshments available, donations requested. Parking allowed on-street and in nearby co-operating local lots. Web: ristage.org/daydream-theater.html Tickets: smarttix.com/Modules/Sales/SalesMainTabsPage.aspx?SalesEventId=8820 Facebook: facebook.com/events/2393467400874256