Oh-so-clever meta-plays have hit their nadir with Sheila Callaghan’s hyperactive, tonally inept That Pretty, Pretty; Or, The Rape Play. "Nadir" may be an extreme word, but That Pretty, Pretty is a play of overstatements. There’s something admirable in the way Callaghan’s writing shoots in all directions — even at its own foot — but the production is more ponderous than something to ponder. Despite the overwhelming number of strands dangling off this frilly concoction, it never coheres into anything developed or inspired. Callaghan’s writing is too scattershot and impatient; it fancies the idea of alluding to a comment about misogyny without actually commenting on it. Callaghan constantly indicts the sleazy solipsism of her characters (or, should I say, archetypes), but it’s the writing itself that is unbearably self-referential.
That Pretty, Pretty has no clear plot — just paralleling scenarios. The play opens in an empty hotel room with Bon Jovi blasting offstage, exuding hyper-masculine energy. Men appear in the background, cheering and hollering like detestable douchebags. Two women enter the room and prattle as they strut their stuff — we soon find out they’re former strippers who seduce, then kill, pro-life neo-conservatives.
From here, there’s a series of vignettes jammed full with blogging, politics and murder; these are glued together by fourth wall-breaking, déjÃ vu, and liberal anger. There’s also a barrage of preposterous postmodern analogies, such as: women are to blogs as men are to screenplays. "Jane Fonda" often pops in wearing a leotard and doing her workouts — a clear sign of her backwards evolution as a political feminist, from Hanoi Jane to Legwarmer Jane. She doubles as a screenwriting muse and an icon of duality. Don’t strain to understand how she really fits in, though: even the play doesn’t know.
Eventually, a terrifying war memory surfaces involving soldiers, a grenade, and a 13-year-old girl’s vagina. But it’s obvious that the play is aware of its preposterousness long before the brutality of the war in Iraq is weaved into the overlapping narratives. If it wasn’t so smug, That Pretty, Pretty may have succeeded as a farce of what makes over-the-top exercises in pop-academia so heavy-handed and insufferable. Such self-effacing insight would make an interesting theory if its second-hand ideas were not bathed in such misanthropic self-seriousness.
Instead, Callaghan incorporates enough cross-dressing, role-reversal, homoeroticism, rants on beauty, female Jell-O wrestling, convention-loathing, and bed pissing to teach a class on gender studies or semiotics. Unfortunately, That Pretty, Pretty is more akin to an introductory 101 class than an interesting seminar, presenting a shallow survey of ideas instead of finely observing the depths of a focused subject. With clunky lines such as, "some people don’t have a stomach for social commentary," the play is so loaded with criticism that it undoes itself, calling "bullshit" on its own over-the-top gestures. It’s awfully difficult to comment on society when everything reflects inward. Although the circular narrative continually folds in on itself, That Pretty, Pretty signifies a dead-end in postmodern theater.
That Pretty, Pretty: Or, The Rape Play is at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theater (224 Waverly Place, between Perry and W 11th Streets) through March 15. Tickets are $40 and available through SmartTix (212-868-4444) or www.smarttix.com.