The press representative who handed me my tickets for Alexis Scheer’s Our Dear Dead Drug Lord gave me a warning before I headed up the stairs to the theater: No spoilers. But like, for super-serious. Reveal nothing that happens in the last 20 minutes, please and thank you.
This is standard but, here, unfortunate. The thing is, to talk about Our Dear Dead Drug Lord at all, I need to be able to talk about the last 20 minutes. Because that’s where, theatrically and morally, the play both makes its biggest bid for self-definition and, also, utterly collapses. Scheer is trying, or at least happy, to shock, but her play muscles its way into territory that’s something other than “fierce,” “intense,” “unapologetic,” “transgressive” — all those words we use to praise big scary gestures onstage. In the name of feminism and liberation, Our Dear Dead Drug Lord ends up in a place of violent solipsism. It disturbs, but not because we can feel — as it wants us to — old and ugly systems breaking, but because we can sense new, powerful, self-deluding uglinesses emerging. It’s a manifesto play, but I can’t get behind its particular take on the revolution.
How do we end up in such dicey terrain? Well, it’s always good to start by killing an animal. Scheer has described Our Dear Dead Drug Lord as “Mean Girls meets Narcos”: Its characters are four wild-eyed Miami high-school girls who meet in a ramshackle treehouse in 2008 to attempt to summon the spirit of Colombian kingpin Pablo Escobar. Before too much time has passed in the show, their newest recruit — the sexy, surly, super-cool Kit (Rebecca Jimenez) — reaches into a cardboard box and snaps the neck of a (mercifully unseen) cat. “You can’t kill it! That would make us, like, psychopaths!” protests Zoom (Alyssa May Gold), the group’s youngest member, a keyed-up, green-haired, conspiracy-theory-flinging romantic. “It’s a sacrificial offering, it’s different,” barks Pipe (Carmen Berkeley), the group’s undisputed leader — a senior, ambitious and ruthless and, though she rejects the label, a Young Republican. Squeeze (Malika Samuel), the flirty, ambivalent one, just wants to stop sneezing. “I’m literally gonna die if you don’t kill it!” she squeals.
Personally, I’m with Zoom. But Our Dear Dead Drug Lord skates right on by the grisly sacrifice and into more fizzy, mile-a-minute millennial banter. Like Erica Schmidt’s terrible-teens take on Macbeth at Red Bull Theater earlier this year, the play is riding a very fine line between saying something about the glamour of violence and simply reveling in it. While she was still working on it, Scheer called Our Dear Dead Drug Lord “part indictment on [sic] the American celebritization of criminals, and part girls just growing up and trying to figure out where the limit is.” Whether her intentions shifted as she wrote, who knows, but the final form of Our Dear Dead Drug Lord indicts nothing. Rather, it builds toward a climax that blurs the line between finding one’s power and using it to injure, self-absolve, and take.
If it weren’t apparent from the warning signs in the lobby and the insert in our programs, the play itself makes it pretty obvious that, before we’re all done in this treehouse, there will be blood. Part of the issue with Scheer’s trajectory is technical: We’re not really given the means to believe that her characters would go where she wants them to end up. We get the obligatory slice of background trauma for most of them — Squeeze’s father committed suicide, Kit never knew her dad and is haunted by memories of her mother’s menacing ex-boyfriend, and Pipe feels responsible for the accidental death of her little sister — but, frankly, we’ve all got shit in our lives. And the OMG–Shut UP–I’m LITERALLY dying–Olivia Benson is my spirit animal diction doesn’t lie on top of enough full-bodied character development. Director Whitney White keeps the overlapping patter buzzing along, and she gets tons of zingy energy out of her four strong actors, but especially in the play’s later scenes, the characters start to feel manipulated rather than organic — no longer real girls but means to a writer’s ends.
The shame of it is that amid all the aggro witchy stuff, some of the play’s best moments are its silliest and tenderest. A long sequence in which Squeeze teaches the girls a dance tribute to her father intended for the upcoming school talent show — with moves from the “Broken Umbrella” to the “Grizzly Bear” to the “Dazed and Confused” — is a brilliant, compassionate piece of comedy. Watching the girls take one another seriously and set to work on something so sweet and weird and ridiculous and sad is a hilarious, delicate joy. And then there are the little pops of teenage truthfulness, often from the precocious Pipe, that feel funny, pointed, and wistful all at once. “You’re 15,” Pipe comforts Zoom. “You don’t need to find your purpose in life until you apply for college.” Or, later: “Potential is so suffocating.” Or, after tumbling into a kiss with the charismatic Kit: “I didn’t even realize — I’m not — I mean … I don’t know — was I sending signals? I … think I’m attracted to power.”
There are bright bubbles of humanity in Scheer’s characters, but the play is ultimately and ostentatiously not interested in being humane. As the girls get closer and closer to summoning Pablo’s spirit (why? It doesn’t really matter — because magic, because control, because power), it’s clear that Our Dear Dead Drug Lord is coming to the edge of its cliff. It can stay in the real world, where Ouija boards don’t work and we’ve all got to find a way to live with each other, or it can make a leap. And it makes one into a chasm of muddled morality and avoided consequences. (Some semi-spoilers ahead now.)
In the mounting frenzy of the show’s ending, an act of extreme violence leads to an evocation of the “Glorious Quaternity of Womanhood,” and we find ourselves in a new universe, a place where magic diverges from morality. It’s a shift with a nasty undertow. In the end, Our Dear Dead Drug Lord values defiance and self-assertion past the point of shared humanity and responsibility. Like Pipe, the play in its final form is attracted to power, but not simply as a reasonable response to the painful experience of smallness or denigration in the world, but for power’s own glossy, merciless sake. It takes a stand against being “sorry” or being “good,” painting those terms as simplistic and belittling, merely shackles to be discarded.
If you feel that you’ve been crippled by a life of apology and self-effacement, then the battle cry espoused by Our Dear Dead Drug Lord might hold some appeal — it might be the first step. But it can’t be the last. Defiance must be preceded by thoughtfulness, self-assertion balanced by self-criticism. We must all, sometimes, be sincerely sorry — not because of who we are but because of the things we do — and we must all, always, keep struggling to define goodness, and to offer it whenever possible not only to ourselves but to our fellow struggling animals. The rush of empowerment offered by Dear Dead Drug Lord is a dangerous high: It gives its girls and its audience the opportunity to let ourselves off the hook. It’s a revolution with little use for kindness, ambivalence, or reflection. It is not my revolution.
Our Dear Dead Drug Lord, produced by the Women’s Project and Second Stage Theater, is at Second Stage through October 20.