If you want a crash course in Millennial World, I have just the ticket for you. Billed as an alternative comedy, it’s a play titled “Adaptive Radiation,” on stage through Dec. 30 at Denizen Theatre in New Paltz. (Ticket info: Denizentheatre.com/tickets; 845-303.4136).
Although this is the vest-pocket venue’s second production, the Denizen quickly has established an ambitious sense of adventure and resourceful stagecraft worth celebrating. Along with local standard-bearers Hudson Stage (Armonk), Penguin Rep (Stony Point), and Axial Theatre (Pleasantville), we would benefit from even more local arts advocates that actively curate new works and encourage original voices in search of a megaphone.
Twentysomething playwright Hannah Benitez, of New York City and Miami, is just such an emerging artist. In “Adaptive Radiation,” receiving its world premiere at Denizen, rapid-fire exchanges among the four characters colorfully convey the angst and the lifestyle vernacular of her peers.
Millennials and younger audience members will get all of the Millennialisms without a glossary. For Baby Boomers, like yours truly, Ms. Benitez delivers an eye- and ear-opening education in how the younger half lives and thinks—and how they agonize over their future, even as they struggle to make sense of a present that, in their eyes, conspires against their pursuit of happiness.
The familiar Millennial tropes are here: quarter-life crisis, preferring bicycles over cars, Starbucks, iPhones, personal arcs, a thing for metaphors, love of rom-coms, no love for our carbon footprint.
As befits any social satirist worth their salty wisecracks, Ms. Benitez is as apt to poke fun at the quirks of her own cohort—such as their use of codified non-words like “ish”—as she is to skewer the repressive tendencies of an over-arching social hierarchy that she vows will stop exploiting her generation.
Our four tour guides on this picaresque journey are Mel (short for Melanie), a designer who interns for an “evil corporation” (Genevieve Simon); her roommate Olivia, a co-worker at the same company (Fredi Bernstein, Actors’ Equity); medical student Robert (Sam Massaro, Actors Equity); and hipster Steve, a gig economy entrepreneur, who grows and sells bamboo, repairs bicycles, microbrews craft beer, and works in a co-op (Tepper Saffren). Also in the cast is female actor Em Demaio, who plays Steve’s alter ego in one of the play’s most memorable scenes.
The playfully mystical plot device is represented by an LED mouth light. It is an illuminated speck that ends up at some point in the mouth of each character, affecting each person’s behavior in a different, magical way.
The glow of the light appears to have the effect of a mind-expanding psychedelic, metaphorically speaking. Most notably, mousy Melanie suddenly acquires feral instincts amplified by animalistic strength.
The speck allows all of them to see the flickering light of possibilities within them that the conformities and inequities of society threaten to darken. The characters in effect experience better versions of themselves, serving as an object lesson in what they could evolve into. (The play’s title is a biological term for the evolutionary process whereby species are modified by changes in their environment.)
The four actors mix and match with each other throughout the 90-minute play (without intermission) in a series of 10 vignettes. In tone, the scenes can toggle between vaudeville “blackout” sketches and the magical lyricism of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
That’s a literary analogy the writer herself invokes in the play, as her versions of Shakespeare’s lovers gambol in the woods to escape the grit and grime of the grid, at least momentarily.
All the actors are beautifully cast and a lot of fun to watch. Their naturalistic, engaging styles are perfectly suited to Ms. Benitez’s free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness portrait of their world-weary travels and travails.
Adding to the affable experience is Denizen’s compact, shape-shifting performing space. Every seat has a clear sightline. Each production’s set can be designed to conform to the demands of play action. There’s a lot of that here, with some scenes requiring the actors to erupt in bursts of physical activity. In you’re in the first row, as I was, you might find an actor or two virtually at your feet. It helpfully heightens audience attention. The frenetic activity is smoothly orchestrated under the sure-handed direction of Sarah Lynn Brown, whose feel for the material teases out its sly humor very effectively and economically.
Ms. Benitez is nothing if not an iconoclast about conventional dramatic structure. She goes her own way, as do the four characters she’s conjured to carry her myriad messages, like Millennial missionaries.
Just as Mel, Steve, Olivia and Robert are exploring their identities, desires, direction, and their life’s meaning, in the play, this emerging talent’s stylized and kinetic way with words feels like she is exploring her voice and her ideas at the same time, bringing us along for the wild ride.
This very promising new dramatist works hard to enlighten her characters’ sense of self and sense of worth. Through them, she exudes a quick wit, keen insight into human nature, an inquisitive intellect, and, most important, hopefulness and compassion.
The question she posits is whether living in a structured society with its repressive rules is reality, or whether shedding worldly encumbrances to be at one with nature offers the purest form of self-realization.
As with all of life, there’s no pat answer, she suggests. The triumph of individualism—call it libertarianism—is what shines through in the end, like sunlight that reflects a brighter tomorrow.
Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at email@example.com or 914.275.6887.