Attempters succeed with clever high-school script

By Ben Rossi

Essentially a pastiche of every high-school romantic comedy ever made, The Attempters, which opened Wednesday night at The Building Stage, is a genuinely enjoyable—if slight—finale to the House Theater’s fifth season. The play is content with a tongue-and-cheek variation on all the venerable tropes of high school and rock-and-roll movies from American Graffiti to Superbad. And, in general, the audience will be content with it too.

The play chronicles the travails of a precocious 17-year-old manic-depressive named Danny Hackles as he searches for fame down many dead-end streets. He’s invented his own language, become a 15-minute rock star, run for city council, and even tried being a guru for a while. All these attempts have ended in failure. Danny’s pathetically adorable lackey Finn helps him through thick and thin and harbors a secret love for a cute blonde actress named Sam. Meanwhile, Danny becomes entangled in a love/hate dialectic with a perky groupie named Nola. We get a sense of Danny’s “demons” from his relationship with his father, a divorced psychiatrist—their relationship is more like that of a patient and doctor than of a father and son.

I daresay if you grew up in America between 1978 and 2008, you’ve seen these stock characters countless times. Danny is manic-depressive, but not in the clinical sense—nothing a little lovesickness and hugging can’t fix. His reconciliation with his father and stepmother is a foregone conclusion. So is his eventual snagging of the girl. Sam and Finn, while fun to watch for their unbearably precious flirtations, are no more than stereotypes.

The script is unfailingly clever, and Danny, a compulsive chatterer, has some of the juiciest lines. But his excited rambling does get monotonous at times. It’s a little tiresome to see yet another story of a creative, troubled male overcoming his egotism and embracing responsibility after falling in love with a lazily drawn female. Can’t girls have any fun, or must they always be pretty mirrors, reflecting a man’s faults for the sake of his self-understanding?

That said, there are still some good performances to be enjoyed. Danny’s stepmother, Claire, played by Lauren Vitz, is especially interesting; she neither flies into hysterics over Danny’s resentment of her nor veers to cartoonish cruelty. She is sensible, yet emotional, like most people. And her total lack of culinary finesse is played to hilarious, and even touching, effect. She may be the only fully human character in the entire play. Other, smaller roles unexpectedly delight—Steve Wilson gives an understated and very funny turn as Vice Principal DeLee.

Much of the play is taken up with Danny’s get-famous-quick schemes, and by and large, these are played well. One of the greatest strengths of The Attempters lies in its creative and ambitious set-pieces. Without these, the commonplace plot would never be able to hold the audience’s attention. The play gives you an actual rock concert—complete with fog machine—and an uproarious little film-within-the-play called The Invisible Man. I only wish that Danny’s bid for city council had been trimmed down a bit, as it’s the least interesting of his many contrivances.

Neither original nor featuring an outstanding performance, The Attempters isn’t going to take the world by storm. But that’s not really the point. It’s a nostalgia piece, designed to allow audience members to relive and re-imagine, from an ironic distance, their own high school experience—actually, to be more precise, their experience of romantic comedies. Judging by the very enthusiastic crowd on Wednesday night, the play succeeds in that attempt.