“If your kid needs a role model and you ain’t it, you’re both fucked.”
– George Carlin, Brain Droppings (1998)
There’s a reason the term “Representation Matters” has gotten a lot of traction over the past few years. It’s derided by social conservatives as “the whines of SJWs who can’t deal with traditional interpretation,” but that’s often because those social conservatives refuse to acknowledge that the world is full of people who don’t think, act, or look like them. For quite a few centuries, the narrative of the Western world has been one of cis-gendered, heterosexual, White, Christian men. Every passing year day moment sees someone outside of that mold fighting to have their voice heard. They want to rightfully be acknowledged as much as those who refuse to give up their position at the top.
So to where does one turn for transgender representation? Although homosexuality, bisexuality, and their variants have been around since the dawn of humanity, transgenders individuals have made their greatest gains in the past few decades. It was only in the past 100 years that effective gender reassignment surgeries became plausible options. But for every Laverne Cox who gets nominated for an Emmy, there are 50 “bathroom bills” inspiring transphobes to stalk public bathrooms with loaded guns.
Slowly but surely, mainstream media are acknowledging and embracing people who don’t conform to gender norms. But wider representation doesn’t equate to high-quality representation. Nowhere is that clearer than in New Conservatory’s brand new show, Everything that’s Beautiful.
Morgan loves mermaids. Father Luke expected, and probably would have preferred, a more masculine affinity, but it just so happens that the only thing “masculine” about Morgan is purely biological. That’s a hard sell in small Midwestern town, so Morgan’s family moves to a new location near Coney Island, NY for a fresh start. The fact that her father works at a water park with regular mermaid shows doesn’t hurt either.
At first, it seems as if the new town will love their new residents. But people ask questions, and those questions will eventually have to be answered. Morgan’s new identity might require more than a period of adjustment, it may tear the family apart at the seams.
There are some early lines in this play that actually gave me hope; that made me think that it would elevate itself from the tired cliché of the “Afterschool Special” traps into which dramatists fall when trying to address serious social issues. In fact, the strongest parts of the play deal with Morgan’s family trying to adjust to her new gender identity – be it Luke’s (Morgan’s father) confusion and insecurity; older brother Theo’s jealousy (“So that’s it?,” asks Theo. “I can’t pierce my tongue, but Morgan’s a girl?! That is so fucked up!”); or mother Jess’s frustration that her child is being judged. Had the entire play had the heart of these key moments, I’d be praising it to the high heavens.
Unfortunately, it isn’t long until the play not only falls into those aforementioned traps, but leaps into them head-first. From forced dialogue, marital infidelity, and character resolutions that exist only for dramatic convenience, the script is less a touching look at gender identity and more a Lifetime movie. It all leads to a cringe-inducing, title-drop ending that should be used by writing professors as to what not to do in a script.
What’s more, the cast aren’t given the necessary tools to elevate the material. Director Ed Decker, also NCTC’s artistic director, keeps the staging as rudimentary as possible, leaving no motivation for his cast. Fairing worst are Will Giammona as Morgan’s father Luke, and Nick Moore as older brother Theo. With direction that seems to consist of “walk on stage and speak”, they both come off incredibly dry in their deliveries. Incidentally, the most effective performances are from the two actors not playing members of Morgan’s family: April Deutschle as mermaid performer Gaby, and Tim Huls in the dual role of the family counselor and a potential source of infidelity for Morgan’s mother.
(Before anyone asks, no I won’t criticise Mattea Fountain as Morgan.)
Devin Casper’s set is stunning, if confounding. Maybe it just takes some getting used to, but the wave-inspired design is often hard to believe as a living room, café, break room, etc. Still, it’s gorgeous to look at. It’s served well by Sara Witsch’s sounds and Virginia Herberts lights/projections. In fact, given that this was my first time in New Conservatory since they redesigned, I must say that everything inside and outside the theatre looked great.
As transgender people gain more public visibility, it’s all the more important for their stories to be heard. But there’s a clear difference between promotion and pandering. Everything that’s Beautiful is the latter. It pats itself on the back for addressing an important issue, but it has nothing valuable to add to the conversation.
Everything that’s Beautiful is running until 23 April at the New Conservatory Theatre Center.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.