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Smart Cookie

a World Premiere
CATEGORY : COMEDY
by Julia Brownell

COMPANY : Alliance Theatre Company [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Hertz Stage [WEBSITE]
ID# 3306

SHOWING : January 30, 2009 - February 28, 2009

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PRODUCTION DESCRIPTION

Meet Cookie. In between crafting her impeccable social image, you might catch her at the spa, avoiding carbs at New York’s best restaurants, or giving her husband’s money to the MET. As you can imagine, she’s very busy – until one day a visit from her prep school son and his foreign exchange girlfriend changes everything. This year’s Kendeda winner is a sly, wicked comedy about the power of surprise to help us become the people we never realized we wanted to be.


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REVIEWS

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Got Milk?
by Dedalus
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
3.5
Julia Brownell’s “Smart Cookie” is a superficial play about superficial people. Yet it has enough nuggets of good stuff that it goes down as easily as a chocolate chip snack.

This year’s winner of the Kendeda Graduate Playwrighting Competition (and the first comedy to have this honor), Ms. Brownell’s piece is a look under the surface of the rich and shallow. “Just Call Me Cookie” is surprised one day when her teenage prep-school son Spencer brings home his young foreign-exchange student girlfriend, Ana. It seems that Ana has found herself in a little … um … situation, and we’re off. What follows is a semi-sorta battle of wills, as Cookie wants to “take care of the matter” over and above Ana’s objections. Ana, however, isn’t intimidated by Cookie’s overbearing wealth and plans, and manages to hold her own, showing a maturity that is surprising, and, when contrasted with the self-centered breeziness of everyone else, refreshing. One of the “nuggets” of this play is joy of seeing Cookie recognize her own superficialities, and to become a semi-sorta mensch by the end.

I think my main problem with this script is that it is soaked in too much “cultural smugness.” This is definitely an outsider’s view of the entrenched upper class of New York’s Upper West Side, and there is an air of “aren’t we better than these shallow people” superficiality about it. The playwright has little affection for these people, and it shows.

And, other than Cookie and Ana, every character is surface-stereotype deep. Spencer is whiny and sulky (like most teenagers, I suppose) and little else. He is more upset about missing a Cancun vacation than about his impending fatherhood, and a late-in-the-game confession of affection is singularly unconvincing. Cookie’s “circle” of friends is represented by only one character (named “Bitsy,” for crying out loud), who seems to be present only to be a whipping-girl for Cookie’s new-found sense of responsibility. In the Larry Larson role (conveniently played by Larry Larson), Cookie’s husband Kevin is a contrived cipher who is never around, unless there is need for some “Father Knows Best” platitudes. All these characters could use a few more layers – as it stands, they are only caricatures and constructs, contrived to show us how much better we are than these “society” types.

But, what really gives this piece drive (and soul) is Courtenay Collins’ Cookie. She gives this character enough heart and self-surprise that I fully believed her transitions and growth. Ms. Collins also has the unique ability to give the serious scenes a light spin and to show us the seriousness beneath the comic scenes. If her “big moments” feel a bit playwright-contrived in retrospect, she makes them work by making us like Cookie, even in her worst moments. This is a Cookie that makes us long for more, to make us want to see what happens to her next (and, in fact, the common refrain from the audience as they exited the theatre was “I was sorry to see it end.”)

If Rebecca’s Blumhagen’s Ana is a bit mousey and bland, she nevertheless holds her own when confronting Ms. Collins, and she earned my respect and affection. I wish the script dealt a little more with her, but she made the most of her few scenes and was a welcome contrast to the shallowness of the rest of the supporting cast (Mr. Larson, Nancy Lemenager, Blake Lowell, and Kate Graham).

On a design level, this production gets the full Alliance treatment – a turntable on a sorta-deco steel-grey set smoothly takes us from scene to scene (kudos to the stage crew for being so QUIET while setting up each new scene). Everything looks bright and modern and part of a wealth-ethos. Pacewise, the piece zipped by at a brisk 100 minutes (no intermission) that doesn’t allow us to dwell too long on the superficialities of plot and character.

So, in the final analysis, I’m not so sure this play is worthy of winning this honor. Yes, it has some well-written dialogue, but it has a minor-league sit-com plot and a roster of characters who are never more than skin-deep. Too many scenes end with a “This Line is Important” flourish that is often unwarranted. The playwright smugly turns up her nose to these people and encourages us to do the same – too many of the laughs are based (and affirm) our preconceptions and prejudices about Upper West Side stereotypes.

But Courtenay Collins and Rebecca Blumhagen give us two unique and vibrant characters who transcend the play and make it work. Like the rest of the audience, I was sorry to see it end. But, as with any late-night cookie snack, I think I needed something more nutritious to wash it down.

-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com)

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