By now, the public’s superficial obsessions with celebrities have become so commonplace in our culture that it is now accepted, rather than attacked, for what it is: a superficial obsession. What they wear, what they eat, where they live, who they date; all of this is red meat for tabloid writers at Entertainment, Us Weekly, People Magazine. It’s the red meat that allows those writers to put red meat on their own dinner tables, and also the red meat that keeps a ravenous readership begging for more.
When a play like Josh Duboff’s Scarlett Fever addresses our sometimes-inexplicable and always-superficial infatuations with particular celebrities, it seems, at first, to satirize the superficiality of celebrity worship. But in its efforts to do so, Duboff’s play becomes as superficial as its intended targets.
In the case of Scarlett Fever, it is Scarlett Johansson who is the object of celebrity worship—Gracie’s worship, to be exact. Having just graduated from college, and having just lived in New York for a mere three weeks, Gracie (Alex Trow) is uncertain about her future. Her mundane corporate job might help pay the rent, but she aspires to greater things.
The play opens to Rihanna’s “We Found Love” (one of many top 40 hits heard throughout the play), and shows Gracie with her gay best friend, Joey (Andy Sandberg), both of whom are getting ready for a soiree. What makes this party extra special is that Gracie’s idol will be in attendance.
During the party, Gracie loosens up with a few drinks and meets a suave young gentleman named Hunter. Despite her drunken blubbering and his unshakable composure, Hunter asks Gracie for her phone number. What we come to realize shortly after this scene (and perhaps even in the first scene, as well) is that Gracie is as much an embarrassment to herself while sober as she is while drunk. Her excitement is never charming or contagious; just irritating. This constant exuberance lends itself (deliberately, no doubt) to a certain awkwardness on her part, not to mention verbal diarrhea. This becomes most apparent during her conversations with Joey. “Cool down,” she tells him at one point. “I’m not…a toaster!”
To be sure, Trow is talented enough to make her character grow on the audience, and to give Gracie some pathos, but neither Trow’s energetic performance nor Ashley Rodbro’s fluid direction can overcome Duboff’s painfully stilted dialogue. At a certain point, the awkward exchanges – whether between friends or potential lovers – become repetitive and do little to develop or reveal character.
The play is at its comedic best whenever Natalia, Joey’s gum-chewing airhead of a roommate, is onstage. Played by Jordy Lievers, the blonde bombshell serves as a foil and rival to Gracie, and their mutual contempt for each other makes for some big laughs. That mutual contempt will reach a boiling point when Gracie wakes up one morning to find that her ex-boyfriend, Eddie (Bill Coyne), has had a one-night stand with Natalia. In a rare moment of selflessness, Natalia gives Gracie a copy of Lost in Translation.
What makes Natalia the most compelling character is that she pushes Gracie to her limits, which no one else in the play seems to do. When Gracie goes off on one of her indecipherable rants, other characters are forced to sit quietly and listen. It seems implausible that Hunter – so calm, cool, and collected – would be able to put up with such doltishness, and yet he does. Natalia doesn’t. She may present herself as an empty-headed blonde, but she has a quick mouth and sharp tongue. And it is ultimately Natalia who brings the play to its climax, when she informs Gracie and Joey that Hunter is Scarlett Johansson’s brother (she finds out in a gossip magazine).
In keeping with Duboff’s contrived writing, the play’s conclusion feels unearned. Gracie never seems to suffer any consequences for her immaturity, and yet she gets everything she wants – namely, Hunter – by the end. Their conversations are shallow banter at best (an example, yet again, of Duboff’s poor script). Are we to believe that their relationship, which begins with Gracie’s drunken buffoonery and continues on with her sober buffoonery, has any potential to last? Duboff certainly seems to think so.
Gracie and Hunter meet with each other several times throughout the play, but they never really get to know each other. Of course, after Gracie finds out who he’s related to, there’s really nothing else she needs to know about him. From beginning to end, Gracie’s relationship with Hunter is as superficial as her obsession with Scarlett Johansson. The play doesn’t really seem to care. The culture at large has come to accept celebrity worship without questioning it, and Scarlett Fever follows suit.
15 Vandam Street between Varick Street and Sixth Avenue
Remaining performances: Thursday, August 23 at 6:45 p.m.; Friday, August 24 at 7 p.m.; and Saturday, August 25 at 3 p.m.
Read Matthew Hauptman’s interview with Andy Sandberg.