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A CurtainUp Review
Bike America
Jordan G. Teicher
"Looks like someone's having a millennial moment."— Man with the Van
Landon G. Woodson, Tom White & Jessica DiGiovanni
The journey as a means of self-discovery is a tried and often fruitless endeavor, but don't tell that to the star of Bike America, Mike Lew's cautionary tale of 20-something aimlessness presented by Ma-Yi Theater Company with The Ensemble Studio Theatre. A self-described "fuck up," 27-year-old Penny (Jessica DiGiovanni) drops out of graduate school and embarks on a cross-country bike trip to find herself (and, ostensibly, raise money for cancer), leaving her clingy boyfriend Todd (Vandit Bhatt), and the real world, in the dust. For audiences, it's a worthwhile expedition, if only, like the wisest travelers, they're more interested in the journey than the destination.

Scene by scene, Bike America is a fun and funny, if occasionally hokey, ride across a diverse landscape. From indecisive Ohio to a merciless New Jersey, Lew skewers each state in broad strokes, providing laughs for New Yorkers with predictable prejudices.

Aesthetically, the production mirrors the camp of a dollar postcard. Under the direction of Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the actual biking (on one-wheeled representations designed for the stage) achieves a silly, but natural-looking, choreography. And set designer Andrew Boyce, who proved his ability to evoke place with simple and whimsical devices in Buyer & Cellar , does it again here, turning a bare stage into a pastiche of locales with the use of sliding backdrops and other two-dimensional props.

Penny's more seasoned travel companions are good company if equally flat. They include high-strung leader Ryan (Tom White), smooth-taking Tim Billy (Lanndon G. Woodson), feisty lesbian couple Annabel (Torres) and Rorie (Melania Nicholls-King), and the stoner-guru known as the Man with the Van (David Shih). They tend to like and humor Penny, even as she toys with the men of the group and burdens the rest with her self-imposed melodrama.

DiGiovanni, reprising the role she originated at Alliance Theatre earlier this year, endows Penny with an explosiveness and goofiness that make her endearing. But the character remains frustratingly naive and self-absorbed. Determined not to hold down a boyfriend, a direction, or an identity, and largely un-self conscious about the negative impact of that choice on herself or others, Penny serves as an avatar for the worst stereotypes of a generation. The lack of political or social context surrounding those qualities in this play results in a character as amusing as any clown, but alienating.

Millenials, perhaps seeing something of themselves in Penny, may sympathize with her feelings of "homelessness" and her desire to find a place where she can "be in my skin." Older audiences, like the adults who orbit Penny's little world, are likely to be less indulgent.

Penny ignores her companions' advice and support, more content to wallow in her own perpetual confusion than come to grips with reality. The stubbornness is so inexplicable it ultimately poses the question: Where does the satire end and the earnest character study begin? In one scene, Penny rejects the notion that her problems are specific to her generation, but in the next breath, proclaims to be the "lady Tom Sawyer." Is Penny's lack of self-awareness a comic exaggeration or a legitimate flaw from which she might actually recover? It seems likely to be the former, until the play starts to slow and sober up near the dramatic finale. This discrepancy is likely to leave audiences feeling stuck between gears.

As the group approaches California, Penny provides no relief for those naysayers in the audience prone to seeing her as a self-destructive brat. She learns, in the most extreme way possible, the silliness of her ways, but is left with no opportunity to change them. It's the dramatic equivalent of getting stranded with a flat tire and no pump — final and, ultimately, disappointing.

Bike America
Written by Mike Lew
Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel
Cast: Vandit Bhatt (Todd), Jessica DiGiovanni (Penny), Melanie Nicholls-King (Rorie, Marilyn, Lauralie) David Shih (Man with the Van, Gene, Stuart, Carlo), Marilyn Torres (Annabel, Patty, Mom), Tom White (Ryan), Landon G. Woodson (Tim Billy)
Set Design: Andrew Boyce
Lighting Design: Matthew Richards
Sound Design: Jill BC Du Boff
Costume Design: Melissa Schachtmeyer, Amy Pedigo-Otto
Stage Manager: David S. Cohen
Production Manager: Miranda Frederick, Lay Hoon Tan
Running Time: 90 minutes
The Theater at St. Clement's, 423 West 46th Street, New York, NY 10036 (212) 971-4862
Beginning 9/24/2013, opening 10/1/2013, closing 10/20/2013
Performance times: Wednesday - Sunday at 7pm
Ticket cost: $30-35
Reviewed by Jordan G. Teicher at 9/28/2013 performance.
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Bike America
Bike America - Scene by scene this is a fun and funny, if occasionally hokey, ride across a diverse landscape. From indecisive Ohio to a merciless New Jersey, Mike Lew skewers each state in broad strokes, providing laughs for New Yorkers with predictable prejudices.. . . Read More