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.