Let me just start by saying that the world needs another comedy-drama about the sex lives of young, urban, introspective white singles like it needs another reality television show imported from Europe, or another offering in the Brendan Fraser Mummy franchise. Know what I mean?
But hold on. Aspiring young playwrights, take heart. Nielsen ratings and box-office numbers teach us this lesson: not only is there an unquenchable supply of said comedy-dramas, but there’s also, apparently, an unquenchable demand. Large numbers of young, urban, introspective white singles must be out there, wanting to see images of themselves.
If so, then this is good news for playwright Bret Fetzer, whose Planet Janet tells the story of single Jan (Eleanor Mason), who compulsively sleeps with men, and her supportive best friend, Stan (David Ballog), who always kinda had a crush on Jan but now just wants to be her friend, and her other good friend Del (Alyssa Bostwick), who is older and embittered and smart-alecky…and other assorted characters with garden-variety neuroses and insecurities.
Romantic adventures are punctuated with monologues from each of the play’s six main characters, who duly offer insights into themselves. The writing in these monologues is sometimes decent, and features some intriguing imagery. Stan, for example, muses on the idea that traffic lights and everyday icons are significant “abstract ornamental designs” whose deep meaning he hasn’t yet figured out..
But sometimes the monologues just become tedious, reminding us of precisely why comedy-dramas like this might be considered cliché. When meek and tentative Sheila (played by an appealing Jessica Hird) confides that she doesn’t think her life is defined by high points and low points but by how she handles “the long, boring stretches,” I began to mentally list all the amazing, vividly interesting subjects about which no one has yet written plays, and wondered why bored, self-indulgent Gen X-ers are still considered ripe material for drama.
Jan is earthy, manipulative, and overwhelmingly self-absorbed. (On this subject, the play’s title really says it all.) At one point, her friend Del tells her, “If you’d learn to shut up, your life would fall into place”–and in fact, everything onstage indicates the truth in this. Like some of the high school friends I make a point of not running into anymore, Jan seems to have an unhealthy relish for hearing others analyze her problems, but aside from offering a bit of melancholy sarcasm, she doesn’t take concrete steps toward resolving those problems. Nevertheless, we’re supposed to sympathize with her, and want to hang out with her for the duration of the performance.
Now it is notable that Jan is sometimes interested only in sex, and not necessarily in waxing on and on about how she wishes she were in a dream-come-true relationship, and for this departure from the single-woman stereotype I am truly grateful. She is a natural aggressor, and this is fun to watch. Also, Mason, as Jan, is rather successful at humanizing the character, giving a comfortable, believable performance, peppered with mannerisms that keep reasserting themselves: raised eyebrows, nervous smiles.
There is also some amusing situational comedy that, when it comes to the forefront, is great. When Jan has an actual, physical fight with a disarmingly honest “male pig,” it is unexpected, layered with fresh and cutting dialogue, and gets plenty of laughs.
There’s a lot about Planet Janet that puts me in mind of an episode of Friends. I don’t mean this as a slam. Friends very effectively taps into some young-hip-white-urban experience, acts as a kind of cathartic fantasy for those of us without nice clothes and nice hair and nice apartments, and usually features some zingy one-liners. But despite a few up-tempo interludes, director Sarah O’Connell doesn’t pace Planet Janet like a TV sitcom. It unfolds leisurely, as if it believes itself to be continually revealing fresh insight, and it is not.
Having said this, let me add that the performance I attended at La Val’s was very well received, and got a healthy helping of belly laughs from those around me. Because of this, I am willing to believe that perhaps I hold some unusual resentment toward the genre. As a young, urban single myself, I do chafe a little at such depictions of my generation. Perhaps unfairly.
But it’s fair to say that Planet Janet covers some rather well-trod territory–and this won’t seem fresh for very much longer. For the welfare of the young and hip, you’ve got to hope that there is some facet of the single experience that remains more complex and less familiar.