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In conceiving “Moth,” gay Australian playwright Declan Greene knew his upsetting but darkly funny drama’s characters would be a pair of unlikable “über nerds.” Plot details would come later.
His memorable creations are Sebastian and Claryssa, each other’s only friend and the outcasts of their sophomore class. He’s hygienically challenged and anime-obsessed; she’s overweight and an emo-Wiccan. Not sure-fire ingredients for suburban teen popularity. Yet, despite holding a special place in rigid high school hierarchy, they aren’t kids you hear much about — at least not until after something bad happens.
That something bad does happen. It takes place at night on a flood light-lit playing field. What’s more, the assault is recorded by the pair’s tormentors and posted on social media. Sebastian and Claryssa react to the traumatic episode in different ways: she falls into a deep depression that she likens to hiding in a cave; whereas he flips out and very publicly becomes a wild-eyed, apocalyptic messenger. Increasingly, things go from bad to worse.
“Moth” is currently making its U.S. premiere at Studio 2ndstage. This perfectly paced, ably executed production also marks the directorial debut of out actor Tom Story. David Nate Goldman and Allie Villarreal play Sebastian and Claryssa.
Before a bank of beige lockers, the friends tell their story, divvying up the parts of their loathsome classmates, silly teachers and irritating parents. Sebastian and Claryssa’s relationship is based on trading insults. That and each one’s need to cling to someone in a world where neither fit. He’s stinky, picks his nose and enjoys tracing cartoon characters. Claryssa is tough, scathingly articulate and willing to fight with words and fists. To the notion that high school is the best years of her life, she responds, “Bullshit.”
In the face of the ultimate bully embodied in white trash classmate Clinton, Sebastian laughs off the smacks and insults while Claryssa tries to protect her friend. But when things get particularly intense, each sells the other out as self-preservation trumps all.
With its many locations and shifts in time, “Moth” is tricky to direct effectively, but Story with the help of a top-notch design team succeeds admirably. Colin K. Bills’ lighting, Mimi d’Autremont’s projection and James Bigbee Garver’s sound create atmospheres from the mundane to the fantastic. Brandee Mathies’ costumes are spot on high school.
A longtime D.C. actor, Story has played myriad classical and contemporary parts including terrific turns as effete artist Andy Warhol in 2ndStage’s “Pop!” and as an alleged child killer in Studio’s production of “The Pillowman.” He elicits compelling performances from his talented young actors Goldman and Villarreal. They come across as if they’ve been friends forever. Their baldly critical exchanges that lead into punches and playful wrestling feel entirely true life.
Some two-person plays leave you wishing for another character to enter, but not this one. It’s strongly character driven and never boring. Still in his 20s, playwright Greene brilliantly forms his characters’ oddly insulated world. His unfiltered dialogue (fat, faggot, retard, and that is but a mild sampling) never sounds stilted. And when Sebastian clings insanely to a moth in a jar or wishes for a field force, it seems perfectly reasonable. Of course, with the obstacles he’s facing, its’ no wonder.
“Moth” takes us into the world and minds of these misfit adolescents whose otherness leads them into dangerous places. It’s a fascinating and sometimes scary place.