Brown Box Theatre Project performs an intimate production of Patrick Gabridge’s world premiere production of Lab Rats, a sweet and comic love story with quirky and original twentysomething characters. It’s no surprise that life is a rat race for millennials, or the so-called “rising generation,” and it was a pleasant surprise to see a mature voice give credence to their stories through his Mika (Brenna Fitzgerald) and Jake (Marc Pierre). Director Kyler Taustin brings to life the unique personalities and quirks of Mika and Jake, and Fitzgerald and Pierre perform with sharp and relatable wit and energy. Despite the strong dialogue, the new play’s plot and story fell flat, feeling predictable and trite where a more nuanced story could have been a wonderful experiment for Gabridge and Boston.
Lab Rats follows Mika and Jake, two twenty-somethings in Boston who meet while performing in experiments, surveys, and studies for money. The girl-meets-boy/boy-meets-girl story is told in the context of some wacky but generic experiments with the focus on the intersection of their stories and lives, as they attempt to make ends meet and make it through one more day of the insanity of today’s confusions. Mika bakes delicious (and addicting) cupcakes as part of her catering business, despite her roommates’ predilections for eating or destroying them; Jake programs in his aunt’s basement. They meet in a waiting room for an experiment for which they hope to receive some extra money. The rising action occurs when a special study promises up to $10,000 upon completion of over two months of isolated study. Further complications ensue as Mika and Jake become friends, adversaries, confidantes, and lovers. A sweet and comic love story with a quirky and modern twist awaits the audience.
Fitzgerald’s Mika is striking in both presence and character. Her Mika resembles a Zooey Deschanel but with the gravity of a Kiera Knightley. Her strengths lie in as much her comedic delivery and facial expressions as her deep sense of the baggage that Mika brings with her. This intensity is matched by Pierre’s stoicism as Jake in his more exposed moments. Their desperation to survive as well as to love drives them but it is their everyday delivery and quirks that help us fall in love with them. These strong actors with their sharp and relatable portrayals keep these characters from becoming the rom-com of the season and elevate the production to a closer scene study of two passionate individuals trying to make something of their lives. It is a pleasure to watch them adapt to, pursue, relish, and avoid some of life’s joys and challenges.
Director Kyler Taustin raises his theatrical game by guiding this production with a firm hand and a clear sense of the script’s limitations and potentials. By emphasizing the relationships between and individual personalities of Mika and Jake, Taustin creates a noteworthy production and plumbs the play’s possibilities. From a choreographed strip-dance scene (don’t worry, it’s not sexy, unless you count the rocking bodies of the cast members) to Taylor Swift, to Jake deciding whether to shoot a Nerf™ gun at either a playful kitten or the beloved President Obama, to the carefully chosen pauses during particularly heart-wrenching monologues, Taustin and his cast find the moments to cherish.
Gabridge has much potential in this script. He emphasizes the rat race of young adulthood, creating two wildly unique stories and characters, despite the predictable convention of young love and rom-com storyline. His emphasis on the characters’ desperations; their unwavering optimism and hope, mixed with moments of unabashed frustrations and confusion; and the complexity of life’s choices makes for a good story. However, he strays too far into what we want to see, rather than what we need to see. The play proceeds down a predictable path, offering enough foreshadowing for even the most naïve theatregoer to understand how the play will conclude. While we don’t know Mika or Jake’s long-term future, we are left with a tightly-written and solid conclusion to roll through the credits. I can’t fault him too much for such a satisfactory ending, but I also recognize the potential for something greater. Many of the conflicting emotions and antagonism between the characters seems resolved by the play’s ending, and I wish that it wasn’t. I wish the play had ended a moment sooner to leave us with some of life’s unanswered questions. With such smartly written characters, I wanted to leave the play with more questions than answers. In short, I wanted the play to be slightly darker and more conflicted than the comic love story, but perhaps I am projecting my own cynicism on a neatly-written play. Gabridge writes fantastic dialogue and impressive monologues, which makes this play a top choice for colleges looking for a superior play for character study or intimate production. For the Boston theatre scene, I want something with a bit more to study and explore.
Lab Rats continues through November 15, 2015, at the Atlantic Wharf, 290 Congress Street, in Boston, Massachusetts. For tickets and more information, visit www.brownboxtheatre.org. With a strong commitment to bringing accessible theatre to Boston and beyond, we should be proud to support Brown Box Theatre Project as they explore new and classic plays for all audiences.