How I Paid For College

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Editorial Review

A quirky, meandering tale
By Celia Wren
Thursday, December 13, 2012

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.