Erika Phoebus’s Kiss It, Make It Better is a very good play. It’s also a difficult play to watch. What makes it so difficult is that it’s a kind of teenage coming-of-age story that’s becoming far too typical. Boy with some sort of psychological issue (ADD? Asperger’s? It is unclear.) meets girl who, at age 16, is raped by someone she trusted. Considering recent studies stating that one in every four girls will be sexually assaulted, this is as timely as it gets.
Teens have a raw deal. Their bodies are doing strange things and their emotions are constantly dialed up to 11. Every good thing that happens feels amazing; every misstep like the end of the world. That’s not because it is; in hindsight we all know how over-reactive we were as teens. What we have now that we lacked then was context, and that makes all the difference. Go through enough trials and tribulation and you can begin to make sense of things and see them to scale.
What is a person in this fragile teenage state to do, though, when something truly terrible happens? In Kiss It, the two not-quite children, not-quite adults try to make sense of their experience in the only way they know how: together.
When their story begins, Nadia (Phoebus herself) and Ty (Brian Miskell) are seven years old. They play among the beams of an abandoned roller coaster and talk about how mommies kiss bumps and bruises to make them better. They even share a first kiss. Later we see them with the babysitter, Bradley (Chris Cornwell), who plays his guitar while she leans against his knee in puppy-like adoration.
Soon the story jumps ahead nine years. Though they still like to climb on the coaster, Nadia is, like every teen, conscious of her physical presence. Ty is the neighborhood dealer. There’s tension between them that wasn’t there before — about her disapproval of his drug habit and his uneasiness about her sexuality — but it’s broken when Ty tells Nadia that Bradley has come back to town.
First crushes die hard. Nadia flirts with Bradley. Bradley responds to the woman she has become. Ty begrudgingly sells Bradley drugs that get him and Nadia high as kites before Bradley goes too far. After a heated moment, a brief action some might say, Nadia is left traumatized, bright blood trickling down her thigh as Bradley buckles up his belt and walks away. The rest unfolds in the aftermath.
What makes Phoebus’s play both impressive and difficult to watch at points is how true it stays to the characters. They’re both incredibly mercurial, as teens are wont to be, and ride emotional roller coasters wilder than any they try to build their home on. Also, the dialogue between the two teens sounds like real dialogue between real teens, full of half-spoken thoughts, never minds, and irritated huffs, bearing a distinct lack of specificity or clarity. It’s exasperating watching them sink deeper into their shared fantasy while trying to wrestle their inner demons.
She’s traumatized but at the same time feels embarrassed and ashamed, as so many women do who are victims of sexual assault. He’s got a legitimate problem with drugs and alcohol. These are grown-up issues and it’s incredibly frustrating witnessing the disaster of these young people thinking they can handle them as islands unto themselves, again, as teens often think they can.
While the script is accurate almost to a fault in regard to its treatment of the main characters, there are some gaps that left me scratching my head. For example, the fact that two kids could go missing for weeks with no one searching for them, all while they’re just camped out at the same place they have always gone, seemed unlikely.
Also, Nadia’s mama, played by Amy Higgs, is an uneven character. She’s very uptight as the mother of a seven-year-old, telling her daughter’s best friend she doesn’t want his chaos infecting her daughter, but then, after the time jump, is suddenly primping and giggling for the boy she used to pay to watch said seven-year-old. She overreacts to the little things and under-reacts to the big ones, like when she doesn’t try to follow Ty to see where he’s taking Nadia’s things or call the police to find her girl.
Mama gets an oddly spectral flashback to her own youthful affair with a man who loved her and left her, with Nadia germinating it is intimated, but that setup feels a little heavy-handed. If anything, being a woman who was taken advantage of by an older man should have made her open to seeing what was going on with her daughter, which she doesn’t acknowledge.
Director Isaac Byrne and Designer Joshua Rose have done something very interesting things with the way the play looks. The set is a study in black and white, with a moving and transforming three-piece structure standing in for roller coaster and home. The first act requires the set to move all at once, which can make things a bit clunky between scenes, but when divided, the action flows at a much quicker, cleaner pace.
The whole thing looks like a massive puzzle, but there must be tricks to getting in and out as Higgs seemed to disappear into thin air during one scene change. There are some striking lighting notes as well, including one that stands out especially in which the house is outlined in crisp white lines.
The play’s final scene takes place another leap into the future, though how long it’s hard to say. In truth, I feel there would have been just as much punch, if not more, had that last scene been excluded. It eliminates any doubt about how the choices Nadia and Ty made affect their lives, but sometimes dénouement isn’t all that necessary. Still, the play delivers some clever insight and tackles subjects that are uncomfortable but important to understand. The more who do, the more they make it better.
Photos by Yvonne Alloway
Kiss It, Make It Better
Playing through June 18, 2016
New Ohio Theatre
154 Christopher Street
New York, New York