Words, Razors, and the Wounded Heart

James Presson, the author of the new play Words, Razors, and the Wounded Heart, is just 22 years old; when he writes about teenagers in suburban Connecticut in "a year in the 2010’s" (as he puts in his script), he knows what the heck he's talking about. And what he's talking about is a lost, disaffected, undirected generation—children of privilege faced with transitioning into adulthood but unprepared and unwilling to make the plunge; kids with lots of stuff (cellphones, video games, disposable cash) but no parental guidance and no moral compass. They're a sad lot, these teens, and the play, though billed somewhat ironically as a "revenge comedy," is a tragedy not only in the classical sense but in the portrait of misspent energy and wasted life that it paints.

Words is frankly modeled on Jacobean Revenge plays like 'Tis Pity She's a Whore (with which it shares some key plot points). The storyline, which piles one unfortunate circumstance upon another, exponentially as the play winds down, is perhaps more on the melodramatic side than we entrenched consumers of naturalist drama might like; that, though is kind of the point. Everything in the world of Words is heightened, to help us appreciate the desolate anomie of the young people Presson is examining here.

The best way I know to convey the quality of the work is to quote from it; here's a portion of a monologue that immediately impressed me as central to the play (and one that future actors and students are going to be using from now on). The young man speaking here is Brandon, a couple of years out of high school, rudderless except that he's concocted a scheme to elope with his girlfriend to Las Vegas:

I need a fresh start. I’ve been here my whole life, and everything I look at… It all has so much baggage attached to it. There’s so much sadness in the place you grow up. Memories are all… Aren’t they? Aren’t they all sad? Even the happy ones are sad in a way....I just think that maybe I could, like, find myself in the desert. Or that Kayla could. Or maybe both of us could. But even just one would be fine. If one of us did, we could help the other one. You know what I mean? We’ll have all the tools. We’ll have a little house made of mud or something. Adobe. We’ll have a grill and I’ll have my truck and we can drive through canyons and shit. I want the sand, y’know? And the red rock and the crazy fucking sunsets. I want the cactuses and the lizards and the dust in my face and the work gloves, all of it. I want to live like pioneers. Like on the Oregon Trail. I think we can do it out there. We’ll go to Vegas, but we’ll only spend one night. And we’ll get married. And then we’ll go to New Mexico. We’ll sleep in the sun. Our skin will turn brown. We’ll make stuff with the earth, pottery and shit. Our arms will be so strong. And we won’t even fuck, y’know? We’ll just make love. I’ve never done that I don’t think. There are so many things I haven’t done… Fuck this place, man. Fuck the grades and the judgment and the picket fences and the block parties and the delis. Fuck all that shit. Fuck Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. Fuck church and school and practice and assemblies and carnivals and pancake breakfasts and youth group and auto shows. Just fuck everything. I hate every single speck of it.

A moment now to outline the story: Joseph and Ashley are brother and sister; he's a junior and she's a senior in high school. Ashley is very seriously dating Danny, who is going to graduate from college on the same day as Ashley's senior prom. But Ashley and Joseph, like characters in a Jacobean play, have discovered they are in love with one another. And Danny, though he says he is deeply in love with Ashley, is also seeing a young woman named Sydney and is maintaining a surprisingly intimate relationship with Aaron, even though neither would ever admit to being gay. Meanwhile, Brandon (mentioned above) is planning his elopement, and his older brother Ryan has just come back home from a sojourn in Colorado, with new girlfriend Jenni in tow. Serving as a kind of chorus are the other high schoolers Taylor, Nick, and Matty Pags; the only other character depicted in the play is Greg, Sydney's older brother who works at a local Chinese carryout. Significantly, no one over the age of 22 is anywhere in evidence.

Words is directed most effectively by Jake Ahlquist, who never lets the pace lag, with one scene overlapping the next as relentlessly as the story's one-upping revelations. The centerpiece of Ahlquist and Presson's artistry is the Act Two opener, at the senior prom, where dance and music augment the pent-up emotions and ideas in a blaze of brilliance, capped by eye-filling costumes by Samantha Jacobson and vivid choreography by the playwright.

The ensemble is similarly first-rate, with particularly unforgettable work turned in by Jacob Presson as Matty Pags, Jenna Grossano as Ashley's confidante Taylor, and Cory Asinofsky as Brandon (who nails his great monologue). RJ Vaillancourt and Amanda Brooklyn are splendid as Ryan and Jenni, who among other things more or less function as our guides into the world of the play. Emma March Barash and Sean Patrick Monahan are touching as sister and brother Ashley and Joseph. Dean Acree executes the lion's share of the stage violence (choreographed by Asinofsky). Jackie Hansen, Tom Sanchez, and Patrick Dooley are also effective; and Ben Diserens has exactly the right combination of arrogance and entitlement as Danny. All of these young artists are folks to keep an eye on: Less Than Rent, producer of Words, is one of indie theater's treasures, and the excellence of this production—and the ambition and audacity of Presson's vision with this epic play—are truly remarkable.