“Subprime,” a new play by Beck Lee, is not an easy show to watch. It’s an hour and a half of two despicable couples who don’t like each other much, trapped in a New York hotel room during a personal and financial crisis.
Throw in mental illness and drug addiction, and you’ve got a show that’s a critique of capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy as told by characters who often benefit from those systems, except when they don’t.
Who knew Linden Hills was such a hotbed for vice? That’s the Minneapolis neighborhood where the Kellys and the Swensons met. (New York-based playwright Lee lived in Minneapolis for a time.) Though they’re not close, they decide to take a trip to New York in the summer of 2008. When they arrive, both couples discover they are in financial ruin.
The actors in this production by Media Blitz Entertainment, now playing at Mixed Blood Theatre, are asked to capture the dark comedy of the script while also adding a dose of humanity to their characters. Bonni Allen does the heaviest lifting as Sydney Swenson, who belittles and abuses her husband, Brian (Dan Hopman), throughout the play. At the same time, she demonstrates how much she cares about her child, who suffers from attention deficit disorder.
Allen has a grasp of the comedy, but also brings a depth to her performance. In one remarkable scene she portrays the character’s deep wounds without ever saying what happened to her. Instead, as her loudmouthed neighbor Kurt (Charles Fraser) jokes about how his friends experimented with a date-rape drug in college, we see Allen crumple in the corner of the hotel room.
The back stories of the characters tend to be more interesting than the story unfolding onstage. There’s a wife-swap proposition, for example, that seems more 1973 than 2008. Then there’s the “cougar” antics of Cartright (Jen Burleigh-Bentz), who seduces the bellhop (Jorge Quintero). Burleigh-Bentz does her best with the material despite her character’s lack of three-dimensionality.
Once the play gets going, it’s painful to watch the horrors unfold in the hotel room, dominated by a giant vulva-like abstract floral painting. Peter Moore’s direction is sleek and brutal, although there are a few missteps. The stage combat is a little messy, and a moment when a character gropes another’s breasts is quite jarring. There’s a discomfort in watching the actors perform a gesture like that, and it seemed unnecessary.
This is not a play for everybody, but if you can stomach extremely dark comedy, you may appreciate Lee’s insights into the destructive forces at play within the myth of the American dream.
Sheila Regan is a Twin Cities critic.