Theater Review - Pop Tart toasts celebrity-obsessed culture

Dad's Garage production is lively, intriguing and insightful

You can't really blame Jennifer Wills for wanting to be rich and famous. The unemployed, undereducated anti-heroine of Dad's Garage Theatre's comedy Pop Tart hungers for wealth, attention and affirmation, like many of us. Unfortunately, Jennifer's (Eve Krueger) lifelong diet of junk media has starved her sense of propriety. Explaining how people used to become famous for things that are "externally impressive" — i.e., actual talent — she aspires to be the kind of reality TV celebrity renowned for doing nothing.

Sometimes Dad's Garage productions can seem a little too much like "pop tarts" themselves, as they snack on superficial trends without offering much nutritional substance. With his U.S. premiere of Pop Tart, Canadian writer/director Chris Craddock stages a light, lively comedy. The play nevertheless develops its characters in intriguing ways, while still offering some sharp insights about our Facebook and Gawker-obsessed zeitgeist.

Pop Tart relies on an odd-couple dynamic that proves satisfying despite its clichés. Early in the play, straightlaced Atlanta lawyer Ruth Warrington (Amber Nash) tracks down her birth mother, an obese trailer park matron (Whittney Millsap in the first of multiple roles) who soon suffers a massive heart attack. Ruth promptly meets Jennifer, the half-sister she didn't know she had. She tries to hide her distaste at Jennifer's vulgar, vapid ways, but resolves to give her blood relative a cultural education. The dynamic plays less like My Fair Lady than the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler movie Baby Mama, only funny.

Nash gives a well-rounded performance as Ruth, who plays straight to the zanier characters while still being an engine of humor. Ruth discovers that, from Jennifer's perspective, pop culture can be irresistibly addictive. At her half-sister's insistence, Ruth joins Facebook and promptly stays up all night in cyberspace, grooving to discoveries from WikiLeaks to Keyboard Cat. The actress reveals her gift for caricature with her brief appearances as Jennifer's vapid idol Berlin Sheraton, who could just as easily be named Shmaris Shmilton.

Since Krueger plays such an aggressive airhead, the actress gets fewer opportunities for nuance. Still, she winningly plays Jennifer's misplaced confidence, particularly when she imitates Britney Spears' "Oops, I Did It Again" choreography. Pop Tart's vision of mass media includes a monster in the form of the Blabber (Matt Horgan), a coarse but all-powerful gossip blogger in a wrestling mask. Horgan also plays Ben, Ruth's once obese former college friend who wants to renew ties, but has secrets that take other facets of online existence to grotesque extremes.

In 2008, Dad's Garage presented Craddock's dizzyingly literate farce Indulgences. With Pop Tart, the playwright maintains his snappy treatment of thoughtful matters. Arguably, Craddock proves a bit flip about street prostitution. And while Craddock conveys that Jennifer has an unhealthy obsession with being thin, Pop Tart seems revolted by genuinely overweight people.

Nevertheless, Pop Tart grants its maladjusted characters some touching opportunities to grow and gain wisdom. The play suggests that the miracle of the 21st century is that we're all connected, but the joke is that we're connected at the most silly and infantile levels possible. Hmm, I wonder if I can fit that line into a Tweet?

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