'I'm better than you, you son of a bitch': a review of <i>The Diary of a Teenage Girl: The Play</i>

I want to avoid the term "must-see" -- I haven't done theater since playing the John Cazale role in a black-box production of The Indian Wants the Bronx my junior year of college, but even I know what a cliche that must be. And yet. Boasting a quintet of strong, awkward performances, staged in an immersive environment best described as "Theater in the Rec Room," and augmented with a breathtaking gallery of art from the source material, The Diary of a Teenage Girl: The Play is riveting theater, and as skillful a comics adaptation as I've come across. If you're in New York and have any interest in the semi-autobiographical Phoebe Gloeckner graphic novel from which the play was adapted, or in an unusual and innovative theatrical experience, or simply in a movingly no-bullshit exploration of the lives of young people and the older people who shape them, I'm almost willing to buy you the tickets myself.

Written by and starring Marielle Heller and directed by Rachel Eckerling and Sarah Cameron Sunde, Diary is running at the 3LD Arts and Technology Center in downtown Manhattan. And to my surprise, the walls of the space itself are all but the play's breakout stars. When you enter the building, you're treated to an unexpected exhibition of original art by Phoebe Gloeckner -- and I promise you, this alone is worth the price of admission. The selections draw heavily from the comics and illustrations found in Diary, including some of its most memorable pieces -- a dalliance between Minnie's best friend Kimmie and her ersatz boyfriend Monroe on the beach literally made my jaw drop, while I laughed aloud at seeing the book's memorable rear-view portrait of Monroe and Kimmie arguing in the buff. But one of "Minnie"/Phoebe's comics from her teenage years was also on display, as were several of her astonishing illustrations from J.G. Ballard's The Atrocity Exhibition, including that infamous fellatio cross-section. Throughout, it's almost awe-inspiring to see how much more frequently white-out is used to erase lettering mistakes or alter word-balloon placement rather than fix the art itself; Gloeckner's line appears to flow fully formed from her brain to the page. I was hard pressed to pull myself away from them to enter the venue proper, or to leave and catch my subway at the end of the night.

Any adaptation of a Phoebe Gloeckner book -- the story of Minnie Goetze, a 15-year-old girl in 1970s San Francisco who is sleeping with her mother's adult boyfriend Monroe -- faces a tall order in recreating the voyeuristic intensity of Gloeckner's art. A major part of the solution to this dilemma came through staging the show in as you-are-there a fashion as possible. Once the house doors are opened, you file past a table labeled "Minnie's stuff--do not touch!" or something to that effect, piled with Neil Diamond records and toys and assorted '70s ephemera. You then proceed up a narrow staircase that opens into a large square room, centered on a bed and soundtracked with soulful '70s hits. Most of the audience seating, arranged to face the center on all four sides of the room, is just green pillows on the tiered floor. It's interrupted here and there by an endtable festooned with liquor or some other minimal marker of Minnie's world; the mixture of set and seating is so seamless that I saw a crew member ask a man in the audience to please get off the sofa he was sitting on, as the actors would be using it. The earthtoned walls are decorated with large, stylized stars and stripes and so on, stuff that wouldn't look out of place on the side of a van, and the air is warm, almost uncomfortably so; by the time characters start smoking various substances, you feel like you've been hotboxed. It's such a 180-degree immersion that when playwright and star Marielle Heller wandered into the set in a nightgown and started doodling in a notebook a full ten minutes before the start of the show, most of the audience just kept on chatting as though they were in their own living rooms.

A second challenge -- and one I don't think had even occurred to me before producer Aaron Louis pointed it out -- was communicating the original book's hybrid nature. Diary is in part just that -- the thinly fictionalized diary entries of creator Phoebe Gloeckner's troubled teenage self Minnie Goetze. It's also heavily illustrated, with the adult Phoebe presenting psychologically subjective interpretations of the events in the entries. And it's also a graphic novel, with comics sequences depicting key (and not-so-key) events. Some of Phoebe/Minnie's actual art and comics from the time are included. And finally, the whole thing is a hybrid of fiction and non-fiction, novel and autobiography, the line blurred by Gloeckner's insistence that memory and art render objective truth impossible, or at least irrelevant.

Here's where the venue comes in again. The show's creators have emphasized how the 3LD's technological capabilities were what made the play possible in the first place, and they're right. While the comics sequences are largely portrayed through traditional theater--two or three actors acting out a scene--the diary sequences are done as monologues augmented with a dazzling array of multimedia material projected digitally throughout the space. At time's it's as simple as projecting San Francisco scenery when Minnie's walking around the city. At other times it's as complex as creating an entire major character and story arc entirely through a combination of Gloeckner's drawings, a mysterious silhouette, a flat-affect voiceover, and an experimental film straight off of Easy Rider's cutting-room floor.

Coming as I do from the perspective of a comics reader, I appreciate not just the prominence afforded Gloeckner's gorgeous art by this technique, but the way it enables the story to retain its "portrait of the artist as a young woman" elements. Minnie's talent, and her desire to use comics as an outlet for it, is a key part of the book, since we the readers can see how her relationship with Monroe and her increasingly self-destructive use of sex and drugs as coping mechanisms is stifling this far more healthy and fruitful pursuit. Hearing Minnie wax rhapsodic about exchanging letters with Aline Kominsky or getting on the radar of R. Crumb is every bit as important as finding out when she first started shooting up or having sex with total strangers; the multimedia aspect brings the former home with all the impact of the latter.

Playwright and lead actress Marielle Heller boils the entire sprawling Diary down to a five-person show, but she bears the weight of the entire thing on her shoulders; I can think of only two major scenes in which she doesn't play a part. She grabbed me from the start. Heller invests Minnie with grinning, giggling, mile-a-minute girlishness and intensity -- almost hyperactivity at first. It's a smart move. Heller is necessarily older than 15-year-old Minnie, and in the mouth of an actress mature enough to write and stage her own show, Minnie's wise-beyond-her-years words would sound almost normal without Gloeckner's deadly accurate, painfully vulnerable portraiture to reinforce her age. A reminder that for all her precocity she's still just a kid is necessary, and Heller de-ages herself convincingly enough that after the first few moments you barely give it a second thought. It's also a useful contrast with the childish, immature, and ultimately abusive behavior of the adults in her life, given that unlike teenage Minnie, they really have no excuse.

Moreover, Minnie is an attractive character in the process of diving headfirst and deep into her sexuality; Heller manages to convey the writhing, sighing heat of the sex talk in Minnie's diaries without it coming across as exploitative or Lolita-fetishy, her wide eyes and flailing limbs maintaining a connection to the child within no matter how explicit the subject matter or intense the sensuality. It's no coincidence that the play's funniest scene is the one in which the characters are wearing the fewest articles of clothing: As a ploy to irritate Monroe and hopefully wheedle more time alone with him, she threatens to streak through his apartment building naked, and ends up having a screaming match with him as he's in the middle of getting dressed, as she stands there in her underwear.

This is the part where I note that the shocking explicitness of the graphic novel notwithstanding, there's no nudity or simulated onstage sex in Diary the play. On one hand that's a relief: In such an intimate setting, the real-world experience of getting up close and personal with the bodies of the performers might overshadow the story the nudity would ostensibly be augmenting.

But is something lost without Gloeckner's unabashed and unashamed depiction of sexuality? I suppose, in the same way that Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner lost something by cutting out the extended scenes of graphic sexual torture when adapting Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho. But in the same way that Harron's film better asserted the viciously satirical nature of the book without the distraction of those savagely gory sequences, Heller's play keeps the emphasis not on the sex act, but on its ripples and ramifications. It establishes its ground rules right away: While the show opens with Monroe surreptitiously fondling Minnie's breast while they watch TV -- leading to a slack-jawed explosion of lust and excitement from Minnie, soundtracked by Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" no less -- Minnie's loss of virginity to Monroe is told, not shown. The important thing isn't seeing this creep score some sweet teenage tail, it's the road this starts Minnie on, and where it leads.

Michael Laurence plays said creep, Monroe, as a genial, boozy loser, relatively serious about jogging but congenitally unable succeed almost anyplace else. Whether wistfully musing about buying a boat only to find the flimsiest pretext possible not to try to earn enough money to actually do it ("I kinda wish it was blue"), or calling Minnie from a very '70s self-help/cult conference to report that he'd been pulled over for drunk driving but was let off after spending the evening in the cop's car helping him chase down criminals, he's both affable and pathetic. His relationship with Minnie is predatory -- for a ne'er-do-well like him, her physical and emotional affection for him, not to mention her age, is his fragile ego's killer app. But it's also oblivious -- he warns Minnie about falling in love with him as though it hadn't already happened, and aside from getting caught by her mom or outed as a Humbert Humbert to his neighbors, the consequences to Minnie of their affair never seem to enter his Coors, Stolichnaya, and weed-besotted brain.

Here, Monroe's physicality is different from that of the Monroe in the book: He's lean, lanky, hawkfaced beneath a scrub of beard, while the book's Monroe's masculinity is of the beefy, beer-gutted variety, his weak chin belying his machismo. But Laurence uses his reediness to great effect. His Monroe wears it like the faded glory of the no-doubt cool and attractive youth he once was, but in his ratty t-shirts and jeans it now reads as weak. At one point he literally slithers down from one tier of the set to another for a drug-addled embrace with Minnie, his long body gliding like the snake he really is.

Played by Mariann Mayberry, Minnie's mother Charlotte looks and sounds a great deal more together than her on-again off-again boyfriend/buddy Monroe. She speaks in the tough, clipped cadences of the bit Law & Order characters my wife and I refer to as "broads," rather than Monroe's slow, slackjawed drawl. She dresses fashionably and sensibly in contrast with Monroe's ubiquitous Miller High Life t-shirt. And she peppers her speech with pro forma San Francisco radicalisms -- a full-throated defense of Patty Hearst, for example -- a lot more convincingly than does Monroe (who gets a DWI at his EST convention, after all). But ultimately she's just as much of an overgrown child as her boyfriend. She's got his same dependency on alcohol, and I think it's telling that the first time we see her get really blotto, she's just been laid off from her job, since she seems so horrified by the prospect of failing at her responsibilities to her family that she'd just prefer to not even try. One moment she's browbeating Minnie into being less square, less of a wallflower, less of a bore; the next she's giggling around with her, stoned, gushing about how awesome the Doors' "Crystal Ship" is; the next she's refusing to help Minnie deal with even the slightest problem and exploding with rage at the suggestion that she ought to. Never does she parent Minnie; the one time she comes closest, she quickly devolves into "why me?" self-pity, leaving Minnie to fend for herself once again. Mayberry constructs Charlotte like an edifice, her every drunken stupor or cocaine binge or harried rush to work a shield against dealing with her own inadequacies.

Rounding out the cast in two smaller roles are Jon Krupp as Minnie's ex-semi-stepdad Pascal and Nell Mooney as her glamorous, shallow best friend Kimmie. Pascal is seen mostly through his knowingly old-fashioned letters to Minnie, charmingly doofy things in which the mathematics professor implores Minnie to take full advantage of her own intelligence and talents, usually capped off with a non sequitur gift of some kind--a book about math, an article about flies. He's a standoffish, socially awkward Frasier type, but in his letters he comes across like the one personally genuinely able to identify and advocate for Minnie's best interests; looks, however, can be deceiving, and Krupp plays a key revelation as though Pascal's sense of superiority to the great unwashed never missed a beat.

Mooney's Kimmie is set up as a sort of mirror image to Minnie: Blonde to Minnie's brunette, fashionable to Minnie's mousy, viewing sex with a gum-snapping, businesslike enthusiasm rather than with Minnie's all-encompassing philosophical zeal. In fact, the play elides many of the parts of the novel that made Kimmie a more complex and difficult character, from slightly toning down her promiscuity to eliminating her own sexual relationship with both Minnie and Monroe. But this enables the play to pull of a sleight-of-hand towards the end, when we learn that there's been much more going on beneath the surface of this airhead than we'd thought, and that her own life has probably been as twisted as Minnie's. It was an impressive moment, even if we had to skip that beach scene to get to it.

That's not the only thing that was skipped. As you can tell from the five-person cast (Krupp pulls double duty in a brief scene as Minnie's therapist, and again as the voice on the other end of a fateful phonecall), many of the major characters from the book are dropped entirely. Minnie's kid sister Gretl and her rich-kid love interest Ricky Wasserman are reduced to mere mentions. Her "bad-news dyke" girlfriend Tabatha, as discussed earlier, is portrayed as an offstage presence through the play's multimedia component. Many of the rogues' gallery of creeps with whom Minnie had dalliances are redacted. Minnie's friend Chuck, an amiable skateboarder who in the book turns out to be perhaps the only person in her life besides Gretel who really cares about her, is dropped entirely. Most of these decisions I can understand. On a basic level, if you bulk up the cast, you lose the intimacy that is so key to the effectiveness of the staging. But Tabatha in particular could have presented a really rich vein to explore as an on-stage presence with whom Minnie could interact -- a darker mirror image to her, where Kimmie presented a lighter one. As effective as her off-stage presence ended up being, I still felt the lack.

But of course, I'm coming at this from the perspective of a Diary superfan. I've reviewed the book at length, I've interviewed its author at even greater length. As I left the theater, I overheard several audience members who only now were getting a good look at Gloeckner's original art that they had no idea this was all based on a true (okay, "true") story at all. People coming into the material cold won't be constantly comparing it to the original, one of the comics medium's few true masterpieces. And even for someone like me who was, the play more than held its own. It was such a pleasure to spend time with these characters, sad though they all were, loathsome though some of them were, because Heller, Eckerling, and Sunde, like Gloeckner before them, treated them all with empathy and respect, and even warmth. After all, the mere fact of Gloeckner's continued existence is a happy ending of sorts, and it's one the play, adapted from her own adaptation of her diaries, worked hard to earn.

The Diary of a Teenage Girl runs at the 3LD Arts & Technology Center at 80 Greenwich St. in Manhattan through April 12th (tickets are available here). That means it's up on the Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights of MoCCA weekend. MoCCA attendees, I can't think of a better way for you to spend an evening while you're in town.

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