If you don't know the trope behind the title of Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a world premiere by Katie May now at the Costume Shop, the play features a lengthy diatribe that both defines and contextualizes it. Porter Price (played by a winning Michael Barrett Austin) tells us it was first noted in 2007 by A.V. Club film critic Nathan Rabin: These girls, who are "quirky and adorable and [make] you mix- tapes and shit," function as love interests for mopey men who need offbeat cheer. While it was roles like Natalie Portman's in Garden State and Kirsten Dunst's in Elizabethtown that inspired Rabin to coin the term, the phenomenon actually has a long history, says Porter, dating back to Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's, and even some Katharine Hepburn roles.
May's play, directed by Jon Tracy, has an admirable goal: calling attention to the way women in contemporary film and drama do little more than activate serotonin production in their male counterparts. Unfortunately, her story is all too similar to the MPDG tragicomedies it purports to interrogate. Tallman (Joshua Roberts) isn't just a brooder; he's broke, recently dumped, and, worst of all, artistic. He paints in the style of graphic novels, and lives his life as if he's the hero of one, complete with an origin story and nemeses in the form of his ex (Liz Anderson) and her new main squeeze (Lucas Hatton). He romanticizes his artistry, his principles, and his muses, the latest of whom is Lilly (Lyndsy Kail). This MPDG looks like a cross between "a ballerina" and "a librarian."
"She's got this energy," says Tallman, "this fascination with stuff." She also can't speak — she can express only wide-eyed, frozen-lipped wonder. Lilly's muteness is May's attempt to comment on the MPDG trope. In this case, silence doesn't speak very loudly.
But then, MPDG isn't trying to be a psychological study of hyper-realistic characters. It's billed as a "graphic novel play." This means that characters sometimes move like cartoons, with the accompanying "whoosh"-like sound effects. It also means that projected artwork by Rob Dario mirrors in comic-book form the story we're seeing live. Unfortunately, technical difficulties prevented many of the images from being shown on press night. Yet the drawings only seem to illustrate scenes the audience has just seen, like a very stylish instant replay rather than a comment on those scenes.
Across town, Custom Made Theatre Company is also using the stage to make us question the way we stereotype, but unlike the MPDG, these characters need no introduction. Why Torture Is Wrong and the People Who Love Them, a Bay Area premiere directed by Claire Rice, features a foreign man (Sal Mattos) who because of his funny name (as well as his runaway temper and penchant for violent threats) might be a terrorist; a raging conservative who sees himself as the leader of the "shadow government" (Paul Stout); and their hopeless mediator, Felicity (Eden Neuendorf), the surprised wife of the former and mortified daughter of the latter.
Some of the resulting jokes are obvious, especially for a San Francisco crowd, and Neuendorf isn't wound tightly enough to work as the play's comic straight woman. Yet the show succeeds because of all the zany morsels playwright Christopher Durang includes that might not seem to serve the plot — precisely the kind of plot he wants to create. He's the kind of writer who makes a relationship more interesting by adding a running underwear gag, but he also uses his silliness to make political points. An assistant to the shadow government (Christopher P. Kelly) can speak only in Looney Tunes lines. Felicity's mother, Luella (a scene-stealing Jennie Brick), an exaggeration of the conservative ideal of wifely deference, wears the same dress in many different shades and doesn't know her own street address.
Durang shows further bravery with this play in that, toward the end, he lets his stock cutouts become real, three-dimensional people. Here Rice's direction excels, coaxing charm and tenderness from lovers whose best prospect, scenes earlier, was mutual survival. That's how you vanquish stereotypes, this play proposes: You let them do the seemingly impossible.