Sophisticated writers often stack the deck when writing about suburban families.
JAGGED LITTLE PILL, now at the Broadhurst, seems to be playing with marked cards at its start but gets honest as the musical continues.
Meet Mary Jane Healy, husband Steve and their son Nick. Bookwriter Diablo Cody has portrayed them as the whitest of white bread.
(That’s the type of bread that has virtually no nutrients, isn’t it?)
Nick’s a high school senior who’s done everything his parents have expected of him. Now comes the crowning glory: Harvard University has sent the letter saying that he’ll be welcomed in the fall.
The lad has been so intent on playing by the rules that he hasn’t had the time or the inclination to develop any social consciousness. We’ll see if that situation can change.
There’s another Healy: Frankie, the African-American teen whom the Healys adopted at birth. You might think that Frankie would be grateful that they’d rescued her. One could infer that Steve and Mary Jane’s initial motive was to show relatives and friends that they were oh-so-liberal. However, Cody gives us no real reason to think that.)
Frankie complains to her teen lesbian lover Jo that her adoptive parents think that they were “heroes just for wanting me.”
(Well … weren’t they?)
Frankie resents that she must live with a white family. When Mary Jane announces that tonight’s dessert will be blondies, Frankie judgmentally quips “Even the brownies are Caucasian.”
A lot of this can be chalked up to adolescent angst and rebellion – but not all of it.
A similar anti-white crack will soon be delivered by another African-American girl. When Frankie goes to school, the white teacher is shown to be silly if not stupid. So for a while, there’s anything for a laugh at white people’s expense.
Worst of all, Frankie says that Steve and Mary Jane were — sarcastically, mind you — “such wonderful people for saving a black child.”
(Well … weren’t they?)
“Maybe I didn’t need saving,” she concludes.
Why does Frankie overlook that she was abandoned by her birth mother? Even if that woman had had a change of heart and had kept her, would Frankie have had as nice a home or been given as much as Steve and Mary Jane have bestowed on her? The Healys wanted to do whatever they could for her – and what they’ve done is considerable.
In order to give Frankie a case, Cody gives the Healys problems. This may not quite be a Bleak House worthy of Dickens, but as Nikos (ZORBA THE GREEK) Kazantzakis soberly observed “Life is hard – even the luckiest life.”
Mary Jane’s accusation that Steve is a workaholic is a bum rap. Cody suggests that Steve is in his office 60 hours a week not because he wants to be or that he’s driven by his own need to succeed. Steve knows that if his family is to remain in a very-upper-middle-class comfortable Connecticut home, he must work to pay for it.
Steve laments about Mary Jane’s attitude in a fine Alanis Morissette lyric: “I gave you the power to make me feel the way my mother could.”
Many equally good ideas permeate Morissette’s lyrics. But she apparently doesn’t realize that theater lyrics serve their audiences best when they rhyme perfectly. The possibility exists that she doesn’t know and/or is too lazy to care.
Lest we be too much on Steve’s side, Cody gives him a, shall-we-say, Achilles Penis. It proves a point that we first encountered through AVENUE Q’s Trekkie Monster.
Mary Jane’s argument that Steve’s never around and doesn’t help around the house would be fair if she’d a similar high-demand career. Cody leads us to believe that she’s been a stay-at-home mom.
Alas, Mary Jane has turned into a latter-day Mary Tyrone as a result of the injuries she incurred after a car accident. High-strung to begin with – she even repositions the Christmas tree ornament that Nick put in the “wrong” place — she’s now strung-out. Prescriptions have run dry, so she must look for another solution.
So it’s off to the psychiatrist. “This wasn’t my idea,” Mary Jane snarls at the shrink to which Steve has a fine rebuttal: “I can’t have ideas?” Mary Jane eventually says “We have been married for 20 years and there are still things that I haven’t told you” – a line that will resonate with many spouses.
This leads to a song with a clever idea: Steve and Mary Jane start to tell the good doctor about their feelings but are too embarrassed to finish them. So Nick and Frankie do it for them.
The white millennials aren’t anything to email home about, either. They’re rowdy party-goers into sex, drugs and Morissette and Glen Ballard’s rock ‘n’ roll – with a particular emphasis on one of the above.
And just as we’re about to cement our dislike for Frankie, an event happens that makes us think twice. In planning to right an injustice, she tells Jo “We’ll be pro-active in reaching out.” Jo isn’t as involved (she’s white) and Mary Jane accuses Frankie of making it just another of her “causes of the week.”
Another wrinkle in the plot would suggest that Mary Jane would be more in tune with Frankie’s cause.
No: Frankie is deadly serious. If her past causes were abstract, she now has a specific one and she’ll fight for it.
This also happens around the time that we finally get a nice white person: Phoenix, who’s romantically interested in Frankie.
There’s another conflict. Is Cody saying that Frankie’s lesbianism might be just a youthful experimental phase? Some may be insulted at the implication that Frankie can simply choose her sexuality. At least she comes out with what many will see as a valid explanation for her choice.
As Mary Jane, Elizabeth Stanley excels, especially when she says “Dear God” as both an expression of exhaustion as well as a prayer. Sean Allan Krill makes Steve a good guy. At 28, Derek Klema is much too old to be playing highschooler Nick.
Celia Rose Gooding has many a slippery slope to maneuver as Frankie and skis through them all in expert fashion.
Lauren Patten knows how to deliver Jo’s many dry-as-desert quips. She reaches her apotheosis with the Morissette standard “You Oughta Know.” Many who’ve already attended JAGGED LITTLE PILL have noted that some attendees don’t wait until the curtain calls to reward Patten; they jump up from their seats to applaud and cheer immediately following this number.
Diane Paulus has provided many striking stage pictures and has done slick work on making the show move. She also offers an effective staging technique to show a flashback.
Twice, however, she either doesn’t trust the material or simply wants the production to turn into a rock concert and minimize the fact that we’re at a Broadway musical. For in two numbers, the band slides in from each side of the stage followed by very bright floodlights that come down from the rafters in order to blind us.
Many shows want us to believe that profound changes will come after the final curtain while we’re not so sure that they will. (Like it or not, our beloved FOLLIES is a prime example.) Here, though, we get the impression there will be improvements. So Cody and her collaborators aren’t just saying that there’s no hope for clueless Caucasians. JAGGED LITTLE PILL would seem to have nothing in common with the 1973 musical SEESAW, but that show’s mantra of “It’s not where you start — it’s where you finish” applies here, too. Aside from two unnecessary interpretive dancers who look as if they’d set their hair on fire to be noticed, it’s ultimately more effective and affecting than its early scenes suggested.
Cody also found a very smart bookend device that seems frivolous at first but pays big dividends at the end of the show. It may even change one of your annual habits – that is, if you’re up for swallowing this JAGGED LITTLE PILL.