"Be Aggressive" is more than just an appeal to the young athletes at Vista del Sol High School. It also appears to be the motto of Annie Weisman, the young writer whose "Be Aggressive" is at La Jolla Playhouse.
Weisman is no wallflower. As "Be Aggressive" begins, a car plows into a pedestrian--and we plunge into the play's central conflict: How does a Vista del Sol cheerleader cope with one of the least cheerful events imaginable--the sudden death of her mother?
Weisman wields metaphors, fancy language as well as teenage syntax, satirical jabs at California culture, ruminations about the overdevelopment of the land and the ritual of cheerleading itself. The play has 32 scenes--most of them brief, many of them ending in blackouts.
The writer's ambitions are laudable, but they aren't fulfilled in a wholly convincing way. The play has elements that appear unclear or awkwardly contrived.
Lisa Peterson's staging certainly has plenty of pep, despite its grim underbelly. The five cheerleaders (all adult actresses convincingly posing as teenagers) hover rhythmically around the edges of the stage during the transitions between scenes. With a propulsive sound design by Laura Grace Brown and an Op-art-inspired look in Rachel Hauck's sets, no one is likely to fall asleep here.
Still, if "Be Aggressive" is going to be gripping and enduring, another rewrite might be in order.
Laura (Angela Goethals) is already a cheerleader when her mother dies, yet we don't know what motivated her decision to cheer. Perhaps she hasn't been cheering very long. She doesn't know if fellow cheerleader Leslie (Jennifer Elise Cox) knows who she is--even though we receive no hint that the squad is any bigger than the five girls who are on stage and even though Leslie is about to become her best friend. Just a little history might be helpful here.
We also don't learn much about Laura's dead mother until too late. We feel the grief of her father (Mark Harelik) as he goes through his wife's wardrobe, and Laura's younger sister (Daisy Eagan) seems upset, but the leading character of Laura is unduly numb about her mother for too long, at least in dramatic terms.
Her relationship with her father also is oddly ambiguous. After his wife dies, Laura wants to keep up her cheering and also her job at a smoothie shop. Dad says no, thinking of Laura's new family responsibilities. She nonetheless keeps cheering and working.
Occasionally, her father appears to know about her activities, but there is also a reference to her "sneaking around" to continue them. Weisman appears to purposely avoid further scenes of confrontation between father and daughter--and that goes double after Laura commits a far more serious deception later in the play.
The plot is propelled by a decision by Leslie and Laura, who play supporting roles in the cheering formations, to pursue the study of cheering with "Bible Belt intensity" in a special two-week cheering seminar in North Carolina.
We don't know why these girls are more driven than the other cheerleaders--we don't know anything about the others. Perhaps Leslie's and Laura's motives are related to their home lives.
Leslie lives with only one parent as well--her father abandoned Leslie and her mother (Linda Gehringer), a former tobacco marketing executive. Leslie expresses glib hatred for her mom. However, the fact that Leslie is so jaded and cynical about so much, including her mother's background in the South, makes her devotion to attending a "Bible Belt" cheering camp even harder to fathom.
The play is awash with references to California customs and quirks. Weisman grew up in Del Mar, just a few miles from La Jolla Playhouse, and the local audiences are bound to appreciate the nuances of her wit to a degree that might be missing elsewhere.
Weisman apparently realizes that her smaller metaphors sometimes feel awkward and that Laura's 11-year-old sister talks far too precociously, for she makes a couple of jokes about these traits. However, she appears to take quite seriously a subplot in which Laura's father is the environmental consultant on a freeway project that Leslie's mother opposes. Yet this narrative strand--laden with symbolism--feels as unnecessary as the additives in the smoothies that Laura makes.
This is Weisman's first produced full-length play. It's not unusual for a first play to have the flaws this one has. We can soon measure Weisman's progress--her "Hold Please," opens in September at South Coast Repertory.
"Be Aggressive," La Jolla Playhouse, La Jolla Village Drive and Torrey Pines Road, La Jolla. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 26. $19-$42. (858) 550-1010. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.
Angela Goethals: Laura
Jennifer Elise Cox: Leslie
Daisy Eagan: Hannah
Mark Harelik: Phil
Linda Gehringer: Judy
Written by Annie Weisman. Directed by Lisa Peterson. Set by Rachel Hauck. Costumes by Audrey Fisher. Lighting by James F. Ingalls. Sound by Laura Grace Brown. Cheer consultant Julie Ann Compton. Stage manager Elizabeth Lohr.