What is it about scenes in plays that take place at high school dances with '80s ballads that always get me? I think it's because when done right, they display a perfect mixture of tongue-in-cheek corniness, nostalgia, and painful earnestness. MilkMilkLemonade is the second play I've seen by Joshua Conkel that's used this device (the other one being his brilliant The Chalk Boy). Both were effective on me.
As you've no doubt caught from its title (don't pretend you don't get the reference, let's not play that game), MilkMilkLemonade, directed by Isaac Butler, revels in being immature, but still manages to have flashes of poignancy throughout.
In MilkMilkLemonade, Emory is an effeminate young boy who lives on a chicken farm in the middle of nowhere (not too far from a place called Mall Town, U.S.A.) with his emphysemic Nanna (who carries around an oxygen tank and cigarette at all times). Emory likes to play with dolls (much to Nanna's chagrin) and his best friend, a chicken named Linda. He dreams of winning an America's Got Talent/Star Search-like reality show and getting enough money to turn the chicken farm into a vegan co-op. (Yes, I realize I have just dated myself by referring to Star Search. What can I say? The dream sequences of the show reminded me of Ed McMahon's show.)
Nanna wants Emory to spend less time acting so girly and more time playing with the aggressive and rage-filled young pyromaniac Elliot. Although Emory tells Nanna that Elliot is a mean bully, and he certainly seems that way, the two of them do indeed like to play with each other, but in a way Nanna most certainly wouldn't approve of.
Meanwhile, Linda dreams of being an Andrew Dice Clay-like standup comic, Emory tries to prevent Linda from going in Nanna's chicken-slicing machine, and Elliot reveals his intense desire of dressing up in a tux and going to prom. (Hey, people and need their dreams. So do chickens.)
All of this is conveyed through the look and feel of a children's play, complete with a cardboard set and super self-conscious narrator who tries to be as "neutral" (or "boring") as possible, except for the times when she needs to play an evil conjoined twin or a spider with an attitude.
I suppose I should spend some time trying to explain how all of these elements add up, or talk about sexual preferences or gender identity, but I will not be a spoilsport. Much of the fun with the play is watching Conkel, Butler and the cast explore their ideas through much silliness and touch upon some genuine pathos in all the preposterousness. And MilkMilkLemonade is certainly a great deal of fun.
Conkel and Butler are a good fit together. They keep the show light and breezy, moving along at a fast clip (the show's only about 70 minutes long). Even though it's very childlike (and sometimes deliberately childish), it's never cloying or too proud of itself.
This cast is amazing. As the Lady in a Leotard, Nikole Beckwith effortlessly flips from being the host/narrator so nervous she looks like she's about to throw up on her shoes to Elliot's aforementioned invisible evil twin to the bitchy spider. Michael Cyril Creighton, playing Emory's Nanna, looks, moves, and sounds eerily like an old woman. Jennifer Harder is incredibly funny and surprisingly sympathetic as Linda the chicken. She's great at conveying her emotions and character arc even when the bulk of her dialogue is clucked (with Beckwith translating). Andy Phelan convincingly plays Emory as a naïve sweetheart you immediately care about. And finally, Jess Barbagallo is astounding as Elliot. I had to keep reminding myself that an adult woman, not an angst-ridden 12 year-old boy, was in fact playing Elliot.
MilkMilkLemonade is very funny. It's very silly. It's very sweet. Just like a cheesy '80s love song, it's simultaneously touching, bittersweet, and absurd.
MilkMilkLemonade, playing at UNDER St. Marks on 94 St. Mark's Place, closes Saturday, September 23. Tickets are apparently sold out, but show up early to be put on the waiting list.
Playing house with Tennessee Williams,
James "Confused Young Boy" Comtois