Milo Cramer has made his Bushwick Starr debut.
I’m not just discussing his play, the zippy and zany Cute Activist. Cramer wrote it, but — in a lovely surprise — is also in it. And like his play, the performance is delightful.
Cramer, alongside Sebastian Pray, puppeteers his way through his new comedy, now extended through February 3 at The Bushwick Starr (207 Starr Street). Cute Activist gingerly but probingly tackles capitalist greed, interracial dating, and — yes — activism. (Sound designer John Gasper comically conjures *thunder* each time that forbidden word is uttered.) Or is it slactivism? It’s hard to say. Cramer doesn’t try and pin down the elusive term, but he does winningly show how his heroine Jen — short for Jen-der, or Jen-trification — illuminates it for herself.
As she does, Cramer and Pray bound around the stage manipulating faux deer or birds or rabbits, nudging Jen along. After all, if Jen (Madeline Wise) and Gil (Ronald Peet) can kiss by the summer solstice, “the local economy will recover.” And what foreshadows summertime on stage more than puppeteered woodland creatures? As the Landlorde tells us, “So much hinges on that one heterosexual touch.”
It’s funny, especially because the Landlorde is played with nefarious flamboyance by the pitch-perfect David Greenspan. His character, a cartoonish corporate mogul, most resembles satire, and Greenspan runs with it. But Cute Activist is not just a melodramatic parody of a city’s vanishing economic opportunity; it’s a wise and witty testament to the privilege cum-laude-graduating and upper-class-enjoying young professionals must confront in order to create a more equitable society.
Take Jen’s trip to her first activist (*cue thunder*) meeting. To make the trek to the protestors’ secret cave (complete with set designer Meredith Ries’ paper stalactites), director Morgan Green has Jen leave the stage, then the theater, and ultimately 207 Starr Street altogether. (Don’t worry, we can still see Wise via Stivo Arnoczy’s videography.) It’s a stunning moment of text-meets-staging where Jen must step out of her comfort zone to ponder her lackluster citizenship. “I like drinking wine and going to bed early which I am not doing tonight,” she says. “I wonder if there will be any cute activist guys there? Trying not to hate myself but maybe I should.”
It’d be easy to dismiss Jen as basic — at least she admits to directly benefiting from racism — but Cramer cares too much about her, and Wise is too talented to treat her with contempt. Cramer’s characters are archetypes with beating hearts, and Green succeeds in keeping them within the same world even if the design is more haphazard. An unadorned Christmas tree sits center stage to perhaps suggest how, when it’s stripped away, trees will go down as commercial buildings ascend. Or maybe the tree just represents winter. But then there’s also a doughnut-shaped inflatable pool raft that serves no purpose. Like Jen, is the design having existential crises?
This dissonance did not weaken the story, and Green may not care if others think it did. (Her bio forthrightly states “she caused an upset by updating The Music Man, a beloved old-school musical with sweet tunes and tone-deaf politics.”) Regardless, the play musters on thanks to Cramer’s playful script and strong supporting performances (and vocals) from Annie Henk, Elizabeth Kenny, and Deepali Gupta who play a rebellious waitress, a harried manager, and a prophetic bluebird.
Those diverse roles — along with the puppets, videos, and sung-through monologues — feel like a lot to cram into an 85-minute play. It’s also a short period to flesh out Jen and Gil’s relationship, but then again many Tinder romances are shorter — especially when Jen swiped right because of Gil’s race. Yet Jen does grow, not that Gil has time for that, and Wise keeps her likable just as Peet makes Gil layered, honest, and deserving of more.
Cute Activist may be too fleeting a play to fully unpack class structure, but I can’t deny this: it once again made me aware of my privileges and shortcomings, and how they’re okay to laugh at but are better when fueled into action. Cramer made me admit that, and therein lies the first step. In a world as chipper as his, out of the thunder can come sunshine.
Cute Activist is written by Milo Cramer, directed by Morgan Green, and produced by The Bushwick Starr with New Saloon and Clubbed Thumb. It features David Greenspan, Deepali Gupta, Annie Henk, Elizabeth Kenny, Ronald Peet, and Madeline Wise with original music composition and vocal arrangement by Gupta. It plays through February 3 at The Bushwick Starr off the Jefferson L, and tickets cost $30 and can be purchased here.