Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
Proxy, the latest premiere musical from Underscore Theatre, which has brought us many wonderful new shows over the years, tells a fascinating story. Fifteen years ago, at the age of twelve, Carisa Gonzalez’s Vanessa was nearly murdered by her best friend Ronnie (Tessa Dettman), who stabbed her over and over again but somehow left her alive. Ronnie, who said that she was ordered to kill by a “faceless man,” was institutionalized; Vanessa was left to try to pick up the pieces of a shockingly broken life. Now a reporter for an internet site, Vanessa decides to mine her own past for her next big story and write about the attempted murder, but in order to do that she has to do two things she has not done in many, many years: see Ronnie again and see her family, from whom she has been so estranged that she did not even attend her father’s funeral.
It’s very easy to see the potential for high drama here, and indeed there are many scenes in Proxy that are rife with painful and powerful emotion; however, despite a great story and some solid performances, this new musical is not quite ready for prime time. Like many plays fresh out of the box, it needs more work in order to be consistent, mostly in the area of the songs. Some of them are outstanding, but composer Alexander Sage Oyen over-relies on sung dialogue throughout the show, and unfortunately, at this point, that is not his strength.
The result is that, despite the best efforts of Gonzalez and director Stephanie Rohr, the first act feels ungrounded until Vanessa finally goes to the hospital where her former friend resides, setting a whole new dynamic in motion. In the earlier sequences between her and her ex-boyfriend/boss Doug (Michael Meija), as well as scenes between her and her mother Martha (Jenny Rudnick) and her sympathetic stoner brother Sean (Kyle Kite), things don’t quite feel realized. And despite the attempt by Oyen to create a running theme with “How the World Can Change,” the song just isn’t strong enough to make it work. It isn’t until nine songs in, with a funny and rocking piece called “Fake IDs,” sung by Vanessa and Sean as they work to create a disguise so she can interview Ronnie without revealing who she is, that Oyen really connects. The relationship that she has with her mother—or lack thereof, since the pain of her past has all but destroyed her ability to be with her family—is a strong subplot, but Martha really needs a power ballad about it, and her signature song isn’t strong enough.
Instead, it is Ronnie who kicks things into gear, as Oyen supplies her with two consecutive songs that Dettman utterly owns to help us to see who she is and why. In fact, every moment with Ronnie is outstanding; Dettman shines in her portrayal of this schizophrenic girl who would gladly take her murderous actions back if she could. She truly conjures a person who rarely has any visitors and desperately desires to please this stranger who wants to tell her story, yet at the same time as she feels open and even vulnerable there is something just behind her eyes, occasionally bubbling to the surface, that makes Vanessa wonder if she might try to do it all over again should the faceless man tell her to.
The introduction of Ronnie completely changes the feel of the play, and both Oyen and book writers Austin Regan and Rachel Franco seem very much aware of it. Though the second act spends some time with the family relationships, as it should, the scenes seem forced in comparison with the Ronnie scenes, which universally soar—kind of amazing when they mostly take place with the two women sitting at a table. (The scenes with Doug are essentially nonstarters; he’s really a wasted character.) I rather wish that Vanessa’s panic didn’t cut both of the first two interviews short; there is a lot to explore. And the third interview, which has Ronnie promising to “finish the story,” ends without that tantalizing thought coming to fruition. More interplay between these two would make the play stronger; there is not enough yet to make the fifteen-year buildup worthwhile.
Regan and Franco do make a great decision in the interview scenes, though: despite the fact that there are some good songs here, they allow the considerable dialogue to be spoken rather than sung, lending both power and verisimilitude to the meetings. Proxy would benefit from more of that. At the moment, it’s a decent early version of a play that has tons of potential. I’d love to see it again after it’s been polished.
Proxy is an Underscore Theatre production now playing at the Understudy, 4609 N. Clark, Chicago, through Nov 24. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.