Night of Taboos

Etcetera's 'Jailbait' raises a lot of intriguing questions as it entertains

Jailbait, Deirdre O'Connor's play about two 15-year-old girls who think they are grown up enough for sex, is a bit of a tease, not unlike the teasing—or, rather, blatant lies—the girls deliver to attract a couple of 30-something men in a bar in Boston.

Etcetera, the late-night group associated with Live Theatre Workshop, has tackled yet another provocative play and has done an admirable job of giving it life.

Director Steve Wood and his fine ensemble have nailed the tone with which O'Connor approaches her subject—which is light with mid-range undertones, and barely a glint of darkness. It becomes somewhat obvious later in the action that her subject is really quite serious.

As the lights come up on the first scene, Emmy (Christine Peterson), earbuds snuggly in place, comes skipping into the bedroom of schoolmate and BFF Claire (Lucille Petty). She hops on the bed, which is covered with stuffed animals, and jumps up and down like a 5-year-old. Claire enters, and the two begin to ready themselves for their Big Night of Taboos—drinking Claire's mother's wine, posing convincingly enough to be admitted to a bar, and seeking hookups with what would likely be older men. Emmy seems to be an old hand at this, with rumors circulating in school of her "doing it" with her boyfriend (almost two times, she claims). Emmy has done the planning for the evening, and her guy is bringing a friend for Claire.

It's actually a sweet and funny scene. We can see at once that Claire, for all her desire to tackle these taboos, is rather guileless, or at least a bit more emotionally mature than her friend. Emmy, at Claire's request, applies on Claire's innocent face the proper going-out-on-the-town makeup—which, of course, means more is more. Claire is committed to this adventure, but does have some reservations. They could get arrested and go to jail, she cringes. Emmy observes that everything that's fun is illegal, and with reassurance, Claire commits to their adventure.

Emmy's date, Mark (Ryan Butler), is as sensitive as sandpaper, boasting that his future wife isn't even born yet. His friend Robert (Christopher Johnson) has been cajoled into coming along, but he seems uninterested; his eyes are glued to his phone as he longs for his ex-girlfriend to call or text. Mark pushes Robert to get serious about their evening, insisting that Robert face the reality that he needs to move on. And what nicer way to ease into the dating scene than a hasty, no-frills pickup of a sweet young thing in a bar?

As Mark woos Emmy, Robert chats with Claire, who—in spite of having to manufacture, and then remember, the lies about her identity—seems to impress and intrigue Robert. As the evening evolves, Emmy is found hugging the toilet on the bar's vile bathroom floor, giving us a hint that she might not be as in control of the situation as she wants Claire (and herself) to believe.

There is sex. There is discovery of the girls' ages. There are consequences, though not what one might expect. Finally, there are questions raised, but none are really answered—and that's where the teasing quality of O'Connor's play is manifest.

This is a one-act play, and there's no harm in raising questions without answering them. In fact, addressing the questions that O'Connor's story raises would be quite difficult to do without sounding contrived or moralistic. But those questions are wound into the action, and it's really only after we leave the theater, feeling that we have enjoyed ourselves, that we realize what we've just seen is a bit more disturbing than has been immediately evident.

One of these issues is the documented fact that young girls are physically maturing much earlier than they have in the past, which might help give rise to situations similar to what we witness. Have we as a culture addressed this fact? Since the issue of sex is involved, and our custom has been avoidance when it comes to such matters, the answer would be: probably not. But maybe we should.

Solid performances are given by each member of the four-person ensemble. Butler is convincing as the guy who sees women as prey and sexual encounters as a matter of conquest. Johnson shows Robert's heart, which may be opening a bit after his lengthy relationship and its aftermath. And opening hearts are vulnerable; he is probably the most hurt by this evening of misrepresentation.

Peterson as Emmy effectively postures as a real woman of the world, but discovers that talk is cheap, and reality is scarier than she has judged it. And Petty excels as an innocent whose evening adventures might actually nurture a deepening maturity.

The first moments of the production are a bit shaky, and in the final moment, Petty swallows her last line so that the ending doesn't have the resonance that it should. However, the skill to pull off these moments is evident, and it's possible that these deficiencies can be corrected.

Director Wood has done an admirable job, especially since his production budget appears to have been less than $10. He paces the action well, orchestrating set changes with minimal distraction. And he gets what seems to be O'Connor's intention: Keep it light, and leave the depth-plumbing to the audience after they have left the theater.

Jailbait is just the sort of intriguing play Etcetera is committed to producing, and the troupe handles the provocative nature well. O'Connor's play, especially as it is done here, deserves an audience.