Theater Review - Bike America breaks away cross-country style
Mike Lew's play looks at America from the seat of a bicycle
With Bike America, first-time playwright Mike Lew has set out to write a story about a cross-country bicycle trip while trying to make a commentary about young Americans. It may remind you of the New Yorker's most recent cover, on which the magazine's dandy-mascot Eustace Tilley has been reimagined as a Brooklyn twentysomething sporting a bicycle neck tattoo. Like the New Yorker cover, Bike America trades in the cultural capital of bicycles — from the global-warming political statement to the Urban Outfitters fashion statement — without ever having to state it. Our protagonist, Penny, appears to be a representative of her generation, a twentysomething child who's indecisive and running away from being an adult, though the play never lives up to the concept.
On a whim, Penny (Jessica DiGiovanni) decides to leave her life in Boston to join a group riding 4,000 miles across the country. When her pudgy, bearded, balding grad school boyfriend leaves teary voice mail messages begging her to reconsider, she acknowledges him just enough to string him along. Within the first few minutes, we learn that Penny is vulgar and that she'll be dead by the play's end. DiGiovanni plays Penny with a brave abrasiveness, using sandpaper rather than sweetness to get under the audience's skin. For the play's first third, her favorite phrase seems to be saying, "FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCKITY FUCK" to no one in particular. She has a similar effect on her bike trip companions: a jock-ish leader, a thoughtful Texan, and two sassy lesbians.
Lew has assembled a cross section of contemporary America that could amount to a vivid portrait of contemporary America. As the cyclists pass from state to state, the scenes and conversations along the road shift from gay marriage to artisanal cheese makers in Brooklyn to dead-end graduate degrees to swing-state politics and so on. The road creates a natural, episodic structure for each of these topics to come along, even if it seems just as likely that these scenes could have been inspired from last Sunday's New York Times. I was vaguely surprised that none of the characters were blogging their trip. Perhaps that'll happen in the film adaptation. With the right subtle touch, these are the kind of elements that could make for a story that feels effortlessly of our time.
Unfortunately, Bike America isn't that good of a play. Much of it is overwritten, relying on cheap one-liners and exaggerated emotions rather than substantial character development. This production is, on the other hand, fun and physical. The actors take plenty of pleasure in mock-riding bikes all over the stage and trading vulgar one-liners. A cleverly shifting set that revolves around the vanishing point of an open road sets a feel-good, road-trip tone. A few moments in the play, including a comically tawdry glimpse of skin during a naked bike ride, seem explicitly designed to make sure the crowd is having fun. Cultural capital aside, bikes are supposed to be fun, aren't they?