Swing dancing – and then sex between a 14-year-old girl and a man 10 years older – are a lot of what Bridget Carpenter’s flashy and provocative, but ultimately insubstantial new play “Fall” is about.
On Wednesday, Berkeley Repertory Theater opened a middling quality production of the play, which starts with promise, then teases and titillates, but ultimately doesn’t boil down to much of substance.
Carpenter is part of a generation of playwrights younger than those the Rep usually produces.
With this production, the company is making an effort to bring new work and new writers into the generally conservative world of repertory theater.
Fourteen-year-old upper middle class Southern California teenager Lydia (Megan Austin Oberle) is bright and articulate, but moody and sarcastic – in fact, a typical teenager of her class. She has that self-conscious teen sneer and is, of course, embarrassed by her parents.
Lydia calls her mother (Nancy Bell) by her first name Jill, because it annoys the mother. Lydia is at an age where she sees the worst of everything, and has sex on the brain. She also has a ghoulish, morbid streak.
When Lydia’s school teacher mother Jill and businessman father Dog (Andy Murray) insist that she join them for three weeks on Catalina Island at swing dance camp – the parents’ passion – Lydia is dragged along under strong protest, miserable the whole time. Eventually she has an affair.
Oberle’s hilarious and spot-on performance as acerbic teen Lydia is this production’s highlight. Bell and Murray also turn in strong performances as her parents.
But once the character of Lydia is introduced and performed for a while, and once the play’s story device of swing dancing is given a few rounds, “Fall” takes a header.
The play really doesn’t go anywhere meaningful or consequential or surprising. At best, it’s like a mainstream teen identity chick flick.
The two story lines – swing camp and Lydia’s identity crisis – are not very well connected in “Fall.”
They are two separate stories running at the same time.
The parents turn out to be background for Lydia’s crisis, and neither parent changes in the play.
Eventually, Lydia herself decides to keep her aborted affair secret, so whatever its deeper meanings and consequences for her might be, we get none of that.
All this is ironic in the context of the play’s abrupt didactic message late in the second half that swing dancing (and they’re actually isn’t that much dancing in the production) is about learning to listen.
There are other false notes in the story.
Often the play’s moments of conflict seem to arrive out of the blue and not fit in well with the flow of the story, such as Lydia’s sudden snit with the dance instructor (Donnie Keshawarz) over dance steps, or a fight over dancing between the two parents.
Elsewhere, mother Jill tells Lydia she would stay with her husband even if he had a mistress. When the play hits such adult issues, it often sounds childish. It is especially odd at the end of the play that the parents don’t figure out about their daughter’s affair.
There are also some false notes in the staging by director Lisa Peterson, who mounted a fine minimalist production of "Antony and Cleopatra" a couple seasons back at Berkeley Rep. The dancers in "Fall," for example, often dance in sneakers. Swing nuts probably would not do that. And the swing dance teacher is not as good a dancer as his students.
“Fall” is a tease with no payoff. Underage sex is a volatile and difficult issue. If it’s raised in a play, the playwright needs to make an effort to deal with it meaningfully, instead of in titillating teen romance movie clichés.
The Eagles’ popular song says, “some dance to remember, some dance to forget.” The people in this play dance to forget.
“Fall,” by Bridget Carpenter, presented by Berkeley Repertory Theater, 2025 Addison Street, through March 11. Call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org.
Twenty half-price “HotTix” go on sale at noon at the Berkeley Rep box office Tuesday through Friday for that evening’s performance (cash only).
Berkeley Rep also offers $15.99 tickets for anyone under the age of 30, with valid I.D. (not good for Saturday performances).