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In ‘How I Paid for College’ at Hub Theatre, quirkiness abounds

By Celia Wren,

If you were to ease into a life of benign criminality, you could do worse than to land a guide like Edward Zanni. Edward, the hero of “How I Paid for College,” an amusing but unmemorable monologue-with-songs receiving its world premiere from the Hub Theatre in Fairfax, is a 17-year-old from the New Jersey suburbs who dreams of studying acting at Juilliard. When his pragmatic father declines to underwrite the tuition, Edward — who has a flair for sardonic phrasing — turns to what he calls “disorganized crime.” His escapades force him to contemplate computer hacking, existential disappointment, the use and misuse of Buddha statues, the pros and cons of wearing a fake clerical collar, and the market value of Bruce Springsteen’s used guitar picks.

As that bit of plot summary may suggest, quirkiness abounds in “How I Paid for College,” adapted by Marc Acito from his award-winning novel of the same name. All the same, it’s a blunt and meandering piece that seems like a standard-issue, artistic coming-of-age tale souped up with extra kookiness. It lacks the resonance and emotional depth of Acito’s zany “Birds of a Feather,” which won the Charles MacArthur Award for outstanding new play after debuting with the Hub in 2011.

Still, “How I Paid for College” features an appealing performance by Alex Brightman, whose credits include Broadway’s “Wicked” and “Glory Days,” and who is directed here by Helen Pafumi. Looking cute as a button in jeans, sneakers and a maroon hoodie over a striped shirt, Brightman makes his entrance with a guitar, serenading us with a winking this-is-a-show-tune show tune on a set where boxy, gray miniature houses frame a thicket of black screens. (Kristen Morgan is the scenic designer; Maria Vetsch devised the costumes.)

He then barrels through the story, drawing out the self-deprecating archness of Edward, who, at one point, compares life to “a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle I have to put together while wearing mittens.” Brightman also morphs enthusiastically into the play’s other characters, including Paula, Edward’s plummy-voiced best friend, who gets her kicks from gently vandalizing a neighbor’s Buddha lawn ornament.

Other notable characterizations include Dagmar, an artsy Austrian photographer (Brightman angles his body into a sultry silhouette for this depiction); a creepy Bronx criminal (the actor shrouds his face with the hoodie); and Edward’s mother, who speaks in an aging hippie’s tones and says things like “rocktastic.”

Director Pafumi supplies some astute bits of staging: In one wry sequence, a series of spotlights pinion Edward as he tries to talk his way out of the flubs he has committed at several dead-end jobs (“Anyone could drop a plate of baby-back ribs onto anyone. Even if anyone is a vegan.”). At other points, projections on the set’s black screens evoke physical and psychological environments, including a Buddha-crammed living room. (Jimmy Lawlor created the lighting. Sound designer Matthew M. Nielson and assistant sound designer Patrick Calhoun supply action-movie music and other tongue-in-cheek effects.)

Neither the stagecraft nor the performance can mask a shopworn quality in the story’s human revelations (friendship is important; to grow older is, often, to grow wiser, etc.). Nor can they stave off the sense that, outrageous plot twists notwithstanding, “How I Paid for College” is just another portrait of a wannabe artist, which is sometimes the narrative equivalent of a suburban cul-de-sac.

Wren is a freelance writer.

How I Paid for College

by Marc Acito. Music and lyrics by Acito. Directed by Helen Pafumi; music direction, Carla and Michael Gerdes; orchestrations and additional music, Matthew M. Nielson; technical director, Jameson Shroyer. 75 minutes. Through Dec. 30 at the John Swayze Theatre at the New School of Northern Virginia, 9431 Silver King Ct., Fairfax. Go to www.thehubtheatre.org or call 800-494-8497.

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