Living in a town that is home to one of the top-ranked colleges in this country, we might become a bit blasé about its status. When the media explodes with stories of protests about racism at the school or badly handled rape cases, or when we experience simply the usual town-gown tensions, we might pause to think about how elite colleges are a world unto themselves, but do we think about what the kids there had to do to enter that world?
peerless, Jiehae Park’s dark comedy at the Yale Repertory Theatre, which runs through Dec. 19, aims its satire close to home in that respect.
The play takes an ultimately chilling look at the Machiavellian travails of two Korean-American twins, M (Tiffany Villarin) and L (Terese Avia Lim) and their stop-at-nothing efforts to get into “the college.” The sisters agree, for instance, that L will delay the start of her schooling so that she and M do not have to compete the same year for college admission. The play, directed by recent Yale School of Drama graduate Margot Bordelon, is at its best when the relentless zeal of the twins’ ambitions manifests itself in dizzyingly quick exchanges, as if M and L were more or less a thing with two heads. They dress, move, and talk alike, but even twins aren’t created equal, we learn.
Much of the humor here requires a certain familiarity with the rigors of college admissions, and the “do’s” of getting into college, which the twins have introjected as if they are the Ten Commandments. So the play may resonate most with college kids and their parents, and with those unfortunates among us facing the application process soon. But Park doesn’t want the twins to be simply funny in their fanatical fixation with the fabled “fat envelope” letter from admissions, she wants them to be evil. And for that, we need a victim.
So we meet D (JD Taylor) a nerdy nice guy who not only can tell the twins apart, but favors M over L. There’s an awkward-teen scene at the school’s main social event — the Hoopscoming Dance — that goes on and on, serving mainly to humanize D. He has an invalid brother whom he takes care of, and he may just be the student at the school most likely to be admitted to “the college.” He’s a blabberer, but M seems to find him, to her surprise, oddly charming. L is having none of that, though she is very much interested in D’s allergy to any kind of nuts.
As with Peanuts, there are no adult characters in this play. The twins are already a world unto themselves and their acts and choices are monitored only by one another. This is key to the plot, since eventually they will not be completely in synch about what they should do. Park and Bordelon are quite adept in giving shifts between the sisters dramatic weight, making us take sides with L or M. The fact that D has a big crush on M helps us find her more sympathetic. Particularly as the twins themselves start to become somewhat “good cop, bad cop” in their pursuit of the same ends.
The play’s look, with a stylized set framing twin lockers, is aided by Shawn Boyle’s busy and interesting neon-like projections that match so well Sydney Gallas’ bright costumes, and by Christopher Thompson’s very streamlined scenic design and Oliver Wason’s punchy lighting. Indeed, the razzle dazzle of the tech effects — including birds of ill omen and other artifacts dropping from the sky — may help to distract from the fact that there’s not much of a plot. There are a couple underdeveloped extra students: Dirty Girl (Caroline Neff) who, à la the witches in Macbeth (from which Park took inspiration for peerless), makes predictions about the twins, and BF (Christopher Livingston), who is mainly here to be normal.
Ostensibly a satiric look at the high stakes for college admissions today, and for the kind of teen perfectionism advocated by Yale Law’s own “Tiger Mother” Amy Chua, peerless plays like an unusually dark sitcom. Sitcoms, though, are generally half-an-hour, tops, whereas the longer this show goes on, the more contrived it feels. The comic timing of Villarin and Lim is amazing and their give-and-take establishes an edgy pace, with Villarin in particular shining as the more sensitive one. But any scene without them both is only half as interesting.
Though we find the girls’ cookie-cutter sense of how to succeed appalling from the start, their breathless attack begins as entertaining; once things take a darker turn it’s harder to find their antics as amusing, if only because of the time put into the character of D. Taking tips from Macbeth puts peerless in the position of trying to add seriousness to characters we can’t take seriously, while the play’s close points, perhaps hopefully, toward that other familiar genre of the teen experience: the horror thriller. Still, the play is an ominous comedy that gives dramatic and comic treatment to things our society tends to get anxious about — teenagers, social status, college students — and, with a bit more effort to flesh out those less than “peers” with no hope of being admitted, might even pack more of a punch.
peerless runs at the Yale Repetory Theater, 1120 Chapel St., until Dec. 19. Click here for more information.