At Primary Stages and Atlantic Theater Company, playwrights Carla Ching and Kate Hamill are telling stories about young people struggling to find their way and make their mark in a world of limited options and oppressive convention. Both Ching’s Nomad Motel — which follows scrabbling high-schoolers in contemporary Anaheim, California — and Hamill’s Little Women, a free adaptation of the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott, offer an enticing premise, but neither summons enough rigor, drive, or even tonal consistency to deliver. Despite all the seemingly high-stakes stuffing in their plots — arguments and illnesses, first loves and sword fights — the productions are scattered, their energy forced and their luster feigned. The kids are alright, but the plays aren’t.
For roughly the first three minutes, Nomad Motel shows some quiet promise, as a young man sits alone in the half-light with a guitar and a loop pedal, plucking and crooning a sad, circular, wordless melody. But then the words begin, and the characters immediately wander into a bog of mushy, meandering cliché, where they remain for two hours and ten minutes. Long on complacent, easy takes and short on actual dramatic urgency, the play feels like an early draft, and the director, Ed Sylvanus Iskander, does little to help or hone it. Instead, he and his scenic designer Yu-Hsuan Chen trap it inside an awkward split-level box that doesn’t transform or recede nearly as gracefully as it should, and Iskander adds padding to the already saggy text in the form of labored, would-be pensive transitions. In the scenes themselves, he lets most of his actors skim the surface of their roles. Not that they have much to dive into — Nomad Motel is peopled by outlines.
The most filled-out of those sketchy forms is Alix (Molly Griggs), a scrappy 17-year-old who dreams about being an architect. But she keeps missing school because she’s busy surviving: Her mother, Fiona (Samantha Mathis), is a flighty, jobless actress with no money, her father’s long gone, and the family (there are two little brothers we never see) scurries between motels, sometimes skipping out on the tab and carrying their belongings in tote bags and plastic milk crates. Alix is tough — she’s used to sleeping on concrete floors and getting pawed by men at the crappy restaurant where she works as a waitress. She seems more akin to her ex-boyfriend, Oscar (Ian Duff), a spirited, blue-dreadlocked foster kid, than to Mason (Christopher Larkin), the nervy, high-achieving quiet type that Oscar mocks as “Mr. 100 Percent” for his straight A’s. But still waters, and all that: Mason, who’s from Hong Kong, lives alone in an expensive house paid for by his dad (Andrew Pang), a cocky Chinese “businessman” who clearly works for the Mob and who wants his son to grow up privileged and powerful in America. Of course, much like this kid, Mason, noodling on his loop pedal and dreaming of becoming the next Andrew Bird, would much rather make beautiful music.
Having assembled her characters, Ching does little with them beyond walk them through a series of hackneyed scenarios. Mason and Alix clash predictably with their respective parental units. Over the course of the play, they nurse an injured baby bird back to health and then (cue silvery chimes) let it fly free. They fall for each other right when the fact that their friendship isn’t based on sexual attraction is actually starting to be interesting. And in clunky sequences apropos of nothing but topicality, both Mason (who’s Chinese-American) and Oscar (who’s black) are roughed up by offstage police. “I mean he just assumed you’re running away with my bags. When you were carrying them to my car? What the fuck?” declares Alix in a rush of indignant post facto exposition.
Griggs is working hard to show us a real person. She — and, to a certain extent, Duff, whose role isn’t quite big enough to go terribly wrong — are the only actors managing to keep their heads above water. Poor Larkin’s Mason, meanwhile, is drowning in stiff dialogue and stock emotions, while Pang’s enforcer father can’t escape caricature and Mathis’s hot-mess mother barely registers. Ching and Iskander also flatten the characters by allowing for the kind of hurried, tiny inconsistencies that leave fraying holes in the play’s fabric: “Is that my top? My favorite top?” Alix asks her mother, who’s busy putting on a flowy, red and white off-shoulder number that we see no evidence the tomboy Alix — who lives in overalls and dirty Chuck Taylors — would in fact wear, let alone like. Who are these people? We get description but no depth, exposition without exposure. We don’t really know them, and yet we know the tired arcs they’ve been given to play out all too well.
If Nomad Motel makes the new feel old, Kate Hamill’s Little Women is trying to make the old feel new, or at least lively — and, frustratingly, it’s trying both way too hard and not hard enough. Hamill has made a niche for herself with adaptations of classic novels about women, often performing as their gutsy protagonists, and it’s distressing to see her forays into these big, rich books going steadily downhill. In 2014, the ingenious, inexhaustible company Bedlam staged her take on Sense and Sensibility, and the results were irreverent yet loving, playful and romantic, with just the right blend of silly burlesque and heartfelt nuance. In 2017, Hamill’s Pride and Prejudice retained a certain amount of wacky, exuberant appeal, and yet seemed skittish and flip when it came to the novel’s real depth and dignity. Little Women, though, feels like it was written in a rush, its energy strained and its characters often reduced either to one-dimensional conveyors of the novel’s most famous moments or, worse, to mouthpieces for modern indignation.
Director Sarna Lapine keeps the story of the four March sisters — growing up in New England with their mother while their father is away fighting for the Union — moving at enough of a clip, but she can’t disguise the play’s diffuse construction or its continual underlining of themes in thick red pen. Hamill has chosen a couple of not particularly original touchstones, and she returns to them repeatedly in an attempt to tie together her somewhat scattershot journey through the novel. Over and over again, the characters sigh or shake their fists over the difficulty of Being Oneself, and — in a gesture that gave me PTSD flashbacks to the Game of Thrones finale — the gentle Beth (Paola Sanchez Abreu) keeps asking the pants-wearing aspiring author Jo (Kristolyn Lloyd) to “tell me a story.” Beware the fiction that keeps talking about the power of fiction instead of simply exemplifying it.
The constant hammering home of the play’s big — and relatively facile — ideas, along with the production’s winky, overplayed lightheartedness, puts the show in territory that veers dangerously close to children’s theater. It doesn’t help that none of the actors seem to be in the same play. Some are earnest, some ostentatious, and almost all feel shaky in their attempts to nail a unified tone. Ellen Harvey is sturdy as the family’s Irish servant Hannah, but of the Marches themselves, only Carmen Zilles as Amy March, the pink-clad and pigtailed malapropping baby of the family, stays the course enough to create an appealing character. Despite Hamill’s writerly penchant for madcappery, Zilles resists the easy temptation of taking Amy over the top. She’s grounded and funny, and she’s actually listening to her fellow performers. Meanwhile, when Hamill, who plays Meg (here, a nerdy, twitchy wallflower suspiciously akin to Hamill’s take on Elizabeth Bennet), gives herself an explosive aria of motherly stress after her character has married and had babies, Lloyd’s Jo stands to the side of the stage with the blank look of an actor who’s waiting for another actor to finish.
In an author’s note in the show’s program, Hamill writes about her belief in “radical adaptation — a kind of co-authorship between myself and the original writer” in the service of “creating inclusive, feminist, socially relevant stories in which each of us can see reflections of our experiences.” That’s all good, but in Little Women, Hamill’s tweaks often feel less revelatory than pandering. Meg, in her “I’m not gonna take it anymore” speech, cries that her husband, the stiff-backed tutor Brooks (Michael Crane), “told me I was being hysterical, and I said hysterical is just what men call women who bear and bear what men never could, and then finally snap!” Jo lays into the priggish, blatantly racist Aunt March (Maria Elena Ramirez, who also plays Marmee), who, she claims, favors “civility at all costs … Civility before humanity!” And later, a condescending literary agent (also Crane) turns down Jo’s novel right before telling her “I’m one of the good ones” and smacking her ass.
All these gestures get murmurs of recognition from the audience — or even, in the case of Meg’s manifesto, scattered applause — but these “mmm”s and “ah”s are the sounds of easy points being scored, the self-regarding recognition of stuff we already know. We’re being told, loudly and repeatedly, that this old book is still about us, here and now, but the lady doth protest too much. (Presumably, we’re all here because we believed that already.) Hamill is so caught up in making her story relevant that she almost neglects to tell it at all, and by the end, she’s so desperate to avoid the heteronormative unions with which Alcott ties up the plot that she leaves all her characters hanging, their futures obscured in a meta, maudlin cloud.
But the holes are still visible through the haze: What are we to make of the happily multiethnic March family in a story about the Civil War? Is Beth supposed to be neurodivergent? Is Jo nonbinary? These things feel intentional yet unexplored, dampening their potential nuance and giving them a sense of nervous appeasement rather than really meaningful expansion of a story we thought we knew. Contemporary values and terms loom in the background of this Little Women, and, for all their progressiveness, they feel as limiting as the archaic social expectations that infuriate Jo. They leave the play no breathing room, and so, like its ambitious heroine, it’s stuck trying to prove something, rather than being allowed simply to be itself.
Nomad Motel is at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 through June 23.
Little Women is at Primary Stages’ Cherry Lane Theatre through June 29.