UMKC takes on teenage apathy with aplomb.

Better Than Whatever 

UMKC takes on teenage apathy with aplomb.

There's a way young people speak that's defensive and derisive, disguising every emotion and reaction except boredom. It employs a thousand shrugging synonyms for "Yeah, whatever." It's a dialect of imprecision and detachment, one that flattens all feeling, one that is steeped in sneers and scabbed over with sarcasm.

If someone cuts in front of an 18-year-old at Walgreens, that kid might mutter, "What the fuck, man?" But he'll leave it at that, as likely to start something as he would be willing to write a long essay on a college exam.

Later, though, bitching to his friends, that same kid might pass the moment off as a victory: "I was all like, 'Yeah, man, fuck you.'"

"I was all" (along with its cousin, "I was, like") is how kids report the things they wish they'd said. The result is a fascinating dual admission: first, you were showed up but didn't have it in you to say anything about it; second, you know this, and your listeners know this, and you know they'll let it slide.

I've wondered for years why playwrights aren't digging into this. But I'm happy to report that we now have an auteur of American listlessness: Megan Mostyn-Brown. The playwright's The Secret Life of Losers is about nothing less than the way that young people use their words as shields. Her college-age characters are still at home in small-town Illinois, soaking in daytime TV between double shifts at the gas station. They mistake honest emotion for a sign of weakness, and they couldn't say "I love you" to their own mothers if they did love their mothers. Even if their mothers were actually around.

Staged by UMKC's graduate theater department, Losers is a new play by a new writer, the rare locally produced show that you can walk into knowing nothing about it. Anyone interested in bored teens in methland should give it a shot. All you really need to know beforehand is that the first word is "Fuck," shouted by a hopped-up townie in a bingo parlor. The material is dark but often wickedly funny. The hero is a woman, making this strange new play even more unusual. After some shrieking bits near the end, our heroine takes a series of steps that right a few of her problems but create loads more.

Neely (Anna Safar) is a smart young woman whose future was stubbed out before she had a chance to light it up. She works at a gas station, tends to her meth-addict brother (Jason Reynolds) and nurses a go-nowhere crush on her best friend (T.J. Chasteen), a teenage father still in love with his baby's long-gone mama. These people can't speak to one another about anything that matters. They become animated only when dishing on people they went to high school with, former acquaintances who have fucked up so spectacularly that the city could run a where-are-they-now PowerPoint each July instead of fireworks.

The drama concerns Neely's slow realization that complaining about her life doesn't make it better. A police officer (the excellent Patrick Du Laney) asks her out, and she soon comes to appreciate in him all of the traits that she initially found most ridiculous, especially his unashamed forthrightness. In her gas station, Neely is impressed when the cop doesn't hide behind sarcasm and directly insults her high school friend Sylvia (played with delicious snap and rancor by Angela Cristantello). Step 1 toward becoming honest with herself is being honesty with other people, and it's to Mostyn-Brown's credit that this is never spelled out explicitly.

Safar's Neely carries the show, and she is at the center of most scenes. She's tiny, but she talks big, her voice a daggerlike singsong. She's also funny and touching, often showing merely hints of those sarcasm-scabbed wounds. Oddly, the show's best moments are silent, including an exquisite awkward connection at the end of Neely's date. We see her shut up and relax, and we, too, relax for a moment.

There's trouble to come for Neely after this moment of peace. The audience will be troubled, too, because Mostyn-Brown leaves us to fill in some yawning blanks.

The dialogue is generally spot-on, giving us angry youth-speak in all its vague glory. But Neely and company rat-a-tat-tat through their lines in less than 90 minutes, a pace that's too fast for this kind of talk. She and her friends seem too excited in their pot-induced jabber, too engaged with one another, even when the script indicates otherwise. They're on, like actors eager for the next line instead of kids worried about how to fill the next silence. Unlike most kids who hang at the gas station, these actors are not bored enough.

But, considering that I wasn't bored once, I'll just say "Whatever."

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