When asked to explain what BareStage’s latest production is about, director Lana Cosic is well rehearsed.
“Mary (Zhou), the playwright, and I have sort of come to saying it’s about a girl who’s falling in love with a guy who’s in love with a girl who’s in love with her gay best friend who’s in love with a boy who’s in love with himself.”
That circuitous tongue twister of a synopsis only scratches the surface of “Somewhere Good,” which is less about love triangles — or, geometrically speaking here, a conga line of broken hearts — than it is about the irrationality of love, the anxieties of young adulthood and the specific difficulties of navigating identity and privilege as a young person of color.
As Zhou herself puts it, “I really wanted to do justice to the complexity, to the intelligence, but also to the stupidity of 20 year olds.”
“Somewhere Good” is an ensemble piece, but it’s clear that the woman at its center is Annie (an excellent Kacey Mayeda), a high-strung square pining for her gay best friend, aspiring actor Steve (Zane Martin). Steve is dating Paul (Patrick Yorkgitis), a rich tech bro, while Annie is half-heartedly seeing sweet, dorky Eli (Ryan Advincula). Rounding out their quintuplet is Annie’s brash, sex positive roommate Lisa (Stephanie Cervantez) — whose irreverent, shameless Internet girl act is hiding personal insecurities.
Zhou began writing “Somewhere Good” in a UC Berkeley playwriting class during her senior year — it’s also where she met Cosic. The final version, which premiered last Thursday night, was the culmination of just more than a year’s worth of revisions. “Somewhere Good” was a screenplay in its earliest form and an Annie-centric, dialogue-heavy dinner party argument play in its middling form. Along the way, two pieces of advice stuck with Zhou: One, that her play lacked dramatic action, and two, that audiences are smart and a writer doesn’t need to spell everything out.
The result is a painstakingly subtle play about relationships in which issues of privilege, self-worth and anxiety underpin every scene but are rarely explicitly named. Annie, Lisa, Steve and Eli all suffer from a paralyzing conviction that they are romantic seconds and though feeling unpretty or unworthy is a universal feeling, for these four characters their inferiority complexes are intricately tied up with how non-white, non-blond and non-blue-eyed they are. They have it harder than a wealthy white guy like Paul, or the Instagram-famous blonde that Lisa becomes dangerously obsessed with, but these characters don’t get off the hook for their own prejudices and bad opinions either. Eli’s unhappiness with his sexual inexperience convinces him that girls just aren’t into “nice guys.” Then Annie’s response to unrequited affection is to lash out with an awful slur, highlighting the complicated intersections of their identities.
If this doesn’t sound funny, it often is.
The first act of “Somewhere Good” is the lighter one, quick with jokes. Lisa is the most obvious candidate for comic relief — a font of relatable, Twitter-ready quips, and Cervantez is an expressive comic actress. Paul is a humanized punchline, the kind of obtusely privileged techie familiar to a Berkeley audience — given the absurd plugs for essential oils and bad app ideas. The one he’s set to pitch at a conference in Singapore is basically a dog version of Nekko Atsume. Eli provides the cute cringe humor, chiming in at the wrong moment and shakily faking confidence in one of the play’s funniest interactions.
The second act is more experimental, featuring a dream sequence that is beautiful yet feels like a tonal reach. The separation between text and subtext in “Somewhere Good” sometimes gives the play a disjointed quality. There’s a gulf between the straightforward, well plotted surface and an undercurrent crowded with big things to say. It’s not clear which of its many themes the play is truly about, and a nebulous ending doesn’t given answers. That said, Zhou’s smart writing and Cosic’s clever directing — one scene takes place in the audience — make “Somewhere Good” a frequently funny and profound production that does justice to the ridiculous, messy, valid anxieties of the modern 20-something.