There are very few movies whose lines are engraved enough on my brain that I can quote them without even thinking twice; one of those movies is Heathers, the blackest of Gen X teen comedies, and the line that kept running through my head while watching Peerless was “My teen angst bullshit now has a body count.” But in Heathers, even as the body count rises, the deaths are almost purely nihilistic, and the target of the satire is the relatively low stakes of high-school social status (which, I know, feel like life-and-death at the time, but aren’t, really) among a group of pretty white girls.
In Jiehae Park’s Peerless, the stakes are so much higher, because what’s on the line here is life after high school. For M (Sasha Diamond) and L (Shannon Tyo), the Asian American identical twins at the center of the play, their entire life has been pointed toward one goal and one goal only: The College. Admission is their only focus, the prize they have prepared themselves not only to achieve, but to deserve, an inarguable stamp of societal approval. They’ve shaped–distorted–their lives for it, because they’ve always known that just being themselves won’t be good enough: They moved to the Midwest for “geographical diversity.” Their grade-point averages and SAT scores are impeccable. Their “softs” include tennis and crafting and volunteering and running and ballet and music (theory and performance). L even stayed back a year in school so that each of them can have their turn in the College spotlight–first M, then L. (Diamond and Tyo don’t look particularly alike other than basics of size and coloring, but their performances are so in tune you’d believe they have twins’ telepathy, finishing each other’s sentences and sensing the subtlest shift in the other’s emotional state, while still keeping a thread of simmering jealousy and competition between them. Amanda Gladu’s clever matching black-and-white costumes with a single pop of color for each do excellent work here as well.)
So when D (Benny Wayne Sully), a rival who hasn’t even been on their radar, a rival not even in the top ten students at their high school, wins the coveted early admission slot (“every year/they take one”), everything goes off the rails . . . and then goes off the rails again and again and again. Because D didn’t do anything wrong, other than the same amount of exploiting the particulars of his history, identity, and trauma that everyone else is doing–that’s how the game is played. (D is an oversharer par excellence, so we end up knowing a lot about his traumatic particulars; Sully makes him self-aware enough that it comes off as a character trait he’s chosen to embrace rather than a weakness.) And despite M and L’s cynical and nasty analyses of why the “no-good no-talent no-brain-fat-fuck” got “their” spot (ultimately landing on the theory that D’s being one-sixteenth Native American trumps M’s “minority vagina”), he turns out to be a sweet guy with struggles of his own, a guy who “like likes” M, a guy who might just deserve a shot, too–even M might agree. But that shot comes at the expense of M’s, and therefore L’s, own single chances to reach the future they desire. (It is, of course, part of the rot at the core of the whole that M and L can’t conceive of any acceptable alternative, and that it seems inconceivable to them that all of their competitors feel the same way.) And when it turns out that BF, M’s boyfriend (Anthony Cason), has not been entirely honest about his intentions to skip the competition for The College in favor of a Historically Black College, things are going to get really ugly. (BF is the play’s most underused character, so we don’t know much more about him than his status as a late-breaking obstacle.)
Uglier, that is, because one of the signatures of Park’s portrayal of all of these kids is how much they’ve internalized a winner-takes-all, purely transactional approach to other humans and even to their own lives. Everything is about comparative standing, and it’s reflexive for all of them to sort themselves and their peers on so many axes: race and gender, sure, but grade point average and popularity and class and relative degrees of “crazy” and relative degrees of hardship are all just grist for an analytic mill that has winners and losers and very little in between. And layered in alongside all the perfectly intentional digs and the purposely cynical analyses are the other, more nebulous elements of the toxic soup in which these people live: The teacher that might be sexually harassing M, or maybe she’s playing him. D’s “innocent,” but not really, observations about foot-binding and M and L’s “delicate and small” feet. Everyone’s thorough disregard of Dirty Girl (Marié Botha), the only character who’s not a player in The College sweepstakes; she’s both the ultimate outcast and someone who’ll casually use a racist slur to needle a classmate. And in this world, it’s so easy to tiptoe across the line from competitiveness to violence towards one’s rivals while still believing you’re on the side of righteousness.
The sibling relationships–in addition to M and L, D has a chronically ill brother (also played by Sully), of whom he is intensely protective–seem to be the only bonds of actual care here. We don’t see any adults, and we sure don’t get the impression that parental support means a whole lot of any of these kids. But the corrosive world in which they live is going to threaten those bonds, too–and quash any hope that D and M can make a real connection. M and L finish each other’s sentences. They are nothing without each other. But maybe they’re nothing with each other, either. Because maybe that dream they share really does only have room for one.
I can’t tell you whether Peerless is intentionally in dialogue with Heathers (though given that I sensed a smidgen of The Breakfast Club as well, in the outsider/prophet Dirty Girl, I’m guessing Park and director Margot Bordelon are well versed in the Gen X teen film canon). But Park is specifically riffing on Macbeth–the tragedy, the violence, and the virulence of ambition, and the terrible things people can do to each other when the only victory that matters is a zero-sum game. M and L could be Macbeth, who would be king hereafter, and Lady M; D, their rival, could be Duncan. The witches are tweaked into Dirty Girl, the weirdest one in every high school, who might be a witch or might just be an outsider who’s taking her own back after being treated as the lowest of the low; who might know things or might just say weird shit with enough conviction that you start to find ways to make it make sense. And the bond between M and L, like that between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, is tender and poisonous at once.
Park’s script is spare and taut, with not a wasted syllable; Bordelon’s direction amps up the crispness and the energy until the twins practically vibrate with every line, and Botha’s Dirty Girl feels genuinely unsettling and unpredictable. The production elements, too, are crisp and striking, in simple, saturated colors, with D’s basement inserted into Kristen Robinson’s scenic design like a realistic set from an entirely different play.
In the end, one twin may succeed, but that success is underscored by the deepest irony. Because balanced against how very much it costs L and M (and BF and D and D’s brother) for one of them to succeed is how easy it all seems for the preppy white girl with the premed brother who is also a freshman at The College. “Sibling preference,” she says.