Comedy isn’t pretty when an audience is slow to get on board, and that’s the tense dynamic through a lot of the facetiously titled “P.Y.G., or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle.” The pop-savvy new satire at Studio Theatre is a reality TV show confining a white Canadian pop star with two black hip-hop artists from Chicago who are tasked with sharpening his edge. What can go wrong does go wrong.
You could subtitle Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s rambunctious play “Being Black for Dummies,” only he used that for “Hooded,” which was such a hit for Mosaic Theater in 2017 that the troupe gave it a second run last year. “Hooded” was borderline shocking in its pivot from the Trayvon Martin shooting to the complications of black identity and the perils of code switching among high schoolers, with comedy and tragedy mashed up tight. The subjects resurface in “P.Y.G.,” but the music-TV frame softens the edge.
The audience stays ahead of this conflict as a Justin Bieber-like figure named Dorian Belle is thrust into a mansion with Blacky Blackerson and Alexan Da Great, the two rappers of P.Y.G. (a.k.a. Petty Young Goons). Cameras roll, capturing everything. Chisholm, who also directs the piece, makes ample use of live feed, especially when one of the three captives slips over to the side for a solo confessional to gripe about the way things are going.
The show is slow to find its footing, but “Hooded” had an awkward start, too. The difference is how much “P.Y.G.” feels on the nose, even as Chisholm interrupts his script with sarcastic commercials for white people’s shoes (they’re magic with privilege) and wokeness in a spray can. Note that the title of “P.Y.G.” deliberately invokes the cultural tutorials of “Pygmalion,” and give Chisholm credit for always being willing to shake things up. The irreverent punchlines hit enough nerves in the show’s second hour that gasps and astonished laughs finally started loosening the crowd.
One of the challenges is a technical hurdle for the actors: How do you scale the performance for both the live audience and for the fake reality TV show? The rhythm is balky as the trio toggles back and forth. The production in the rough, intimate Studio X space takes pains to incorporate a couple of small cameras and to use the back wall for Kelly Colburn’s projections; the show wants a hip visual language. Yet despite playing pop stars, the actors too rarely command the stage.
Simon Kiser is earnest and clueless as Dorian, always a mental beat behind; as the reality show evolves, Blacky (Seth Hill) and Alexand (Gary L. Perkins III) come into focus as they ponder their devil’s bargain. Hill is a touch laid back as Blacky (who bonds with Dorian in the blizzard of whiteness that is skiing), and Perkins simmers with self-doubt as Alexand. Black and Alexand share a long, thoughtful, history-laden dance, keeping Dorian out and then bringing him in on certain terms, and it’s energizing to see Chisholm eagerly pounce into still another mode, letting bodies talk. You don’t exactly see that coming. Much of the rest, you do.
P.Y.G., or the Mis-Edumacation of Dorian Belle, written and directed by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. Scenic design, Richard Ouellette; lights, Jesse Belsky; costumes, Danielle Preston; sound designer/composer, Gabriel Clausen; movement coach, Tony Thomas. About two hours. Through April 28 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. $20-$62. 202-332-3300. studiotheatre.org.