Just how mean can mean girls be? Honors Students, a new play by Mariah MacCarthy explores the outer limits of high school girls’ intense relationships with uncomfortable and shocking results. The stellar cast overcomes the penchant for overly graphic violence to keep the audience riveted and reminds us that values matter.
In an all pink bedroom, friends Kora and Minnie play truth or dare. It appears to be a typical high school scene but the initial dare is likely to gross out most people. The tone has been set and R-rated violence ensues against a backdrop of pink plush cushions and stuffed animal toys.
Two girls, who are supposed to be best friends, test each other’s loyalty in ways that are more the preserve of dark TV shows than live drama. We are left in no doubt that, while these girls may be smart, they are also both trouble and in trouble. Both Thanh Ta and Olivia Levine as Kora and Minnie respectively give their utmost to help us believe that they are really capable of these vile acts. Ta embodies the narcissistic, self-absorbed Kora. Her angelic face is in stark contrast to the sadistic behavior she revels in.
The girls are plotting to leave their small-town life but they need money to make it a reality. MacCarthy’s writing captures the tone of the superficial, unrealistic planning process and their endless bitchy comments about everyone else with acid realism. There’s a prolonged and funny exchange centered on the phrase “You’re so basic”.
But their exclusive friendship is challenged when Minnie meets another girl at school. Megan, as played by Arielle Goldman, is everything the mean girls are not. She’s lonely, wholesome, and believes in kindness. She has experience with real life problems unlike the other two. She’s also a YouTube sensation for the wrong reasons. Her attempts to make YouTube videos are brilliantly portrayed as she dances wildly to her favorite songs.
The sound throughout is well-executed by Jeanne Travis including an apt music soundtrack. Meghan’s lack of inhibitions is refreshing next to the other two girls jaded cynicism.
That cynicism comes to the fore when Kora exploits her babysitting bosses on a series of awkward drives home. As the girls raise more money and their departure approaches, the tension in their relationship goes into overdrive. Olivia Levine’s depiction of her character’s mixed feelings is powerful and poignant as she struggles to make a decision.
The action plays out against three candy-colored back drops (set design by Claire DeLiso)- a design choice that is in pertinent counterpoint to the dark subject matter. In the relatively small space, we move from home to school to graveyard. Here Megan and Minnie light themselves with flashlights – a technique that heightens the drama of their conversation by bathing just their faces in light while also mirroring real life teenage exploits.
The girls spiral out of control into a climax that is as hard to watch as it is implausible. To say the girls lack a moral compass doesn’t really do justice to the depths of their depravity. Megan, as the voice of reason, makes little headway with them and it’s hard to understand why she would continue to hang out with these two.
While the writing is strong, some of the shocking choices ultimately undermine this intriguing look at teenage life. As the characters struggle to bring meaning to their existences, we are left to wonder if we really care about two such shallow girls.