Romy and Michelle are alive and well and living on the stage of the Furious Theatre in Pasadena. Well, if not exactly Romy and Michelle of High School Reunion fame, at least their kissing cousins.

The cute and stylish but vapid duo of Allison and Angela (Katie Davies and Megan Goodchild) could easily have taken lessons from their big screen predecessors in Gina Gionfriddo’s U.S. Drag, the off-Broadway hit now getting its West Coast Premiere in a production directed by the always imaginative Darin Anthony.

The A-girls have their liberal arts degrees in hand, but more than boring 9-to-5 jobs on their minds when U.S. Drag opens in a stylishly choreographed (by Jessica Hanna) introduction to the play’s hip and not-so-hip New York City characters.

The gals have found at least a temporary solution to their money problems. Nightly visits to Manhattan singles bars guarantee free drinks and cash for cab fare, and their boyishly cute Wall Street roommate Ned (Nick Cernoch) is more than willing to pay their rent on condition that they introduce him to hot babes.

The possibility of even bigger money presents itself when they meet nerdy amateur criminologist James (Eric Pargac), who informs them of the $100,000 reward for the capture of serial criminal “Ed.”  In their quest for the killer, Allison and Angela join S.A.F.E., an awareness-raising group led by Evan (Noah Harper).  (S.A.F.E. is an acronym for “Stay Away From Ed,” and the group’s motto is “Don’t Help.”  After all, “a good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan.”) Among the group’s members is Mary (Johanna McKay), one of Ed’s luckier victims, having survived with only a black eye to show for the attack.

Angela also meets self-involved, neurotic best-selling author Christopher (Shawn Lee), who describes his work as “creative non-fiction.” (Though the childhood abuse recounted in his book didn’t actually happen, his parents did indeed abuse him “symbolically.”)

Those in search of American men in drag will find none of them in U.S. Drag. (The title comes from a line in William S. Burrough’s Naked lunch, and refers to a “particularly American kind of longing.”)  What theatergoers will find is a pitch-black comedy (in a nearly pitch-black theater) with plenty of cleverly pointed dialog which skewers the American obsession for instant fame and fortune.  Here are some of the play’s zingers:

•“It isn’t fair,” pouts Allison. “I don’t have any money and no one knows who I am.” 

•“It’s hard to work for a little when you want a lot.” 

•“When a famous person crashes their plane or skis into a tree, everyone cares.” 

•And when Christopher tells Angela that a signed copy of his book will be worth much more when he’s dead, she quickly inquires, “How much?”

There is much devilishly comic acting in U.S. Drag, led by a quartet of Furious Theater Ensemble members and StageSceneLA favorites. As always, Lee is a standout as the egomaniacal Christopher, as are Pargac as the sweetly ineffectual James, Cernoch as the socially challenged Ned, and Davies as Allison (Reese Witherspoon on acid). McKay (Mary) is never anything less than brilliant and Harpster is sweetly loveable as Evan.  Megan Goodchild is also very funny as Angela, though sometimes hard to hear.  A fine Saffron Henke completes the cast in various roles.

Dan Jenkins scenic and lighting design is striking and inventive, the set representing an amalgam of Manhattan locales (shop windows, subway station, singles bar, bedroom.)  Sewer grates open up to become beds and a walk-don’t walk signal hangs from the ceiling. Christy Hauptman’s costumes are New York chic and character appropriate. Doug Newell’s original sound design and music situate the action smack dab in the middle of high energy New York.

Funny and well-acted as U.S. Drag is, it is not without its drawbacks. The self-centeredness of Gionfriddo’s characters makes it hard to care about them. (I realize that this may be the point but I still found it distancing.) Also, the darkness of the writing is matched by the darkness of the theater, which can have a dampening effect on the audience. Sitting at the back of the theater feels a bit like being in a pitch black tunnel.

Still, U.S. Drag and Furious Theatre Company seem made for each other, and the play is poised to attract the kind of hip young audiences that would normally choose a night at a club over an evening at the theater.  Actually, come to think of it, since U.S. Drag lets out before 10:00, the two are not mutually exclusive.

Furious Theatre Company, Pasadena Playhouse Carrie Hamilton Theatre, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
October 30, 2008
Photos: Anthony Masters

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