A vandal sprays racist graffiti on the home of the only African American family in a small, affluent suburban town. The prime suspect: Goon (Frank Nardi Jr.), a jockish junior high student who bullies his classmates. But a twist: Goon has been secretly dating Carly (Kishia Nixon), the daughter of the targeted family.
David Jacobi’s Ready Steady Yeti Go, world-premiering through March 11 at the Azuka Theatre Company at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, centers on this spectacular premise, but both the play and the Azuka Theatre’s production merely tease the plot into a cutesy 90 minutes, filled with small laughs, some tender scenes, but devoid of big moments or conclusions.
Jacobi frames the action via a group of middle schoolers reenacting the crime as a form of theater, both to conjure with their own confusion (one asks, in unaffected honesty, why evil exists) and to come to terms with an aftermath they must all keep secret from the adults in town. This device is revealed early on, and the characters — playing both themselves, their teachers, and their parents — occasionally break their fourth wall (not ours) to step outside the action and comment. The play’s title comes from a chant invented by the group: It’s both a signal to accelerate the action and a safe word to stop their play when a scene becomes too intense or troubling.
This device endears the characters to us, and, combined with a sweet budding romance between Goon and Carly, it renders many scenes poignant, as adolescents cope with a crime in their community (reminiscent of 1980s films like Stand By Me). Under the direction of Allison Heishman, the kids popping in and out of the play-within-the-play elicit both laughter and a deepened sense of trauma.
Alison Ormsby’s portrayal of the socially conscious schoolteacher Mrs. Apples satirizes virtue-signaling whites looking to turn the entire episode into a tidal wave of white guilt and finger-pointing. Kevin Meehan’s set — a ramshackle clubhouse on a lawn of turf — evokes the innocence of suburban freedom and the world children build from their imagination.
Jacobi layers the conflict with the appearance of Wikipedia Jones (Jenson Titus Lavallee), the braces-sporting, lisping, and drooling son of the town chief of police. Jones fancies himself an amateur detective, and his scenes, though comical, cheapen the sincerity and the humor (and remind us, unfortunately, of cartoonish villains found in Scooby Doo).
The play means well and brings a fresh perspective on how children respond when they inherit and navigate a social problem. But ultimately, there’s something unsatisfying in its inconclusiveness. That lack of closure is best captured by this dialogue between Carly and one of her schoolmates:
Kid: “I’m sorry.”
Kid: “I don’t know.”
Ready Steady Yeti Go
Through March 11, Azuka Theatre Company, at the Proscenium Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks St. Tickets: Pay what you will. Information: 215-563-1100 or azukatheatre.org.