Bike America directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel is a sometimes refreshing and sometimes “kick-ass” play about finding oneself and losing oneself as a 20-something. When all avenues seem to block mental and soulful progress, hop on a bike and go across the country to help fund cancer research. Maybe then one can appreciate all that one’s life offers by comparing places and people who are different and uncategorizable. Maybe not. As everything is in a veil of uncertainty, adopting an attitude of appreciation and gratefulness requires wisdom gained after muddling through the realms of death and destruction. It may even demand a journey through fire where one is given the opportunity to “break on through to the other side.”
Penny (an enthusiastic, hyperbolic Jessica DiGiovanni) is unsatisfied because she is unable to finish her graduate education. She finds the place where she lives hackneyed, never having traveled anywhere. She finds the guy that she’s seeing to be as mundane as a tablecloth and about as useless when there is no table. In order to move up, up and away from Todd, to confront her angst about evolving nowhere, she makes a hasty decision to join a group of experienced cyclists who are biking across America, even though she is unprepared, untrained and as haphazard as the weather.
For his part, Todd (an appropriately dorky and funny Vandit Bhatt) believes that Penny loves him and that he is her boyfriend. As he whines and shadows her across the country, following on a preposterous scooter, Penny abusively rejects him, unable to return his love or affection, a shunning which he finds attractive. As the play progresses, we see this is Penny’s M.O. with the two other males on the cycling journey, lead cycling coach Ryan (a crisp and direct Tom White) and Tim Billy (a clever, sweet Landon G. Woodson). Aggressively, Penny dons the usual male role and attempts a “hook-up.” When the fish are on the line, she eschews their affection or attention, enjoying the obvious role reversal, completely disregarding who these young men are, playing more to their gender than their character and emphasizing her apparent independence and emotional indifference, though her autonomy is unreliable.
The other two cyclists are gay partners Annabel (the versatile and fine actress Marilyn Torres) and Rorie (an equally fine Melanie Nicholls-King) who are on the journey to advocate another important cause. As we follow Penny and her fellow cyclists, there is great movement across the terrain as they travel down the East Coast to the large southern cities. Episodic stints and jive dialogue rip across the stage like a machete through a taut, wind-filled sail. However, there is no movement in any of the characters, their personalities or natures, with the exception of Penny who grows more disconsolate and crisis-bound as they pedal toward the Pacific Ocean. The other characters are cyphers that Penny hits her head against when they offer her vapid, still-born advice which she may or may not be taking in.
Mike Lew’s dialogue in part is ingenious, his wordplay, vibrant. He has an ear for what rings well and touches the funny bone and an excellent sense of when to take character to the end of broad humor, stopping at the right moment without becoming tiresome. On the other hand, some of the dialogue is rather glib and indistinguishable from one character to the next. Only when he makes character traits clear (Todd’s mom is bearish and irascible) does the sameness of the humor fall away, becoming less generic. But this is typical of comedy. What makes comedy great is when it arises out of character and follows the characters’ attitude and logic.
Lew’s writing succeeds best with Penny, greatly assisted by the interesting raw-nerve portrayal by DiGiovanni. We are immersed in her journey and willing to follow wherever she leads herself psychically, mentally and emotionally, though she avers that she is alienated and disaffected by everything. We know she is not, and by the play’s end, Lew, allowing understatement to prevail with von Stuelpnagel’s moderated and sensible guidance, drive the themes to our door whether we wish to open it or not. Regardless, we do understand Penny’s matter-of-fact yet rich closing with empathy.
Melanie Nicholls-King also plays Marilyn and Lauralie. Versatile David Shih is a funny “Man with the Van” and also Gene, Stuart and Carlo. Marilyn Torres is Patty and hysterical as the “bearish” Mom.
Bike America is presented by the Ma-Yi Theater Company in partnership with The Ensemble Studio Theatre. It runs until October 20th.