Review: In 'Bite Me,' taking aim at familiar teenage tropes

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Review: In 'Bite Me,' taking aim at familiar teenage tropes
David Garelik and Malika Samuel in Eliana Pipes’ “BITE ME” directed by Rebecca Martinez at WP Theater in New York. Eliana Pipes’s new play is too pat to convincingly explore the societal imbalances resulting from race, class, and gender. (Carol Rosegg via The New York Times)

by Naveen Kumar

NEW YORK, NY.- Good girls falling for bad boys is a cornerstone of high school dramas. Usually the story goes something like this: She sticks to the rules while he breaks them, and their meeting inspires a mutual coming-of-age.

In “Bite Me,” by playwright Eliana Pipes, the reasons a studious girl can’t afford to slip up while her crush has the privilege to slack off hum beneath their budding friendship like the drone of a fluorescent bulb.

The pair share custody of a neglected supply closet (the set is by Chika Shimizu), where Melody retreats to hide her tears from the queen bees and Nathan stores the petty contraband he swipes for fun, not because he needs money. As Nathan (David Garelik) makes clear, he has plenty of cash to pay for the homework he buys from Melody (Malika Samuel), a top student and an obvious outsider, who rides the bus for an hour each way to their suburban school from an unnamed city.

This 90-minute two-person play, a co-production with Colt Coeur that recently opened at the WP Theater, is set in 2004 (as illustrated by Sarita Fellows’ fresh-from-the-mall costumes and Tosin Olufolabi’s alt-pop playlist). The fact that Melody is Black and Nathan is white does not immediately seem to influence their interactions as obviously as the conventional gender roles that have long governed the social and sexual politics of American teenagers: that every girl ought to be pretty and sweet, and guys should act tough and nonplused.

Melody and Nathan each appear intent on conforming to such expectations, and, under the direction of Rebecca Martínez, the actors play convincing iterations of recognizable types (the minority overachiever primed to act out; the self-destructive slacker with a heart). But Pipes is also interested in how race, class and gender can play a role in determining who needs to hustle for the opportunities that others freely squander. (This is a theme in her work: Her play “Dream Hou$e,” produced by multiple regional theaters last year, is a surreal critique of gentrification.)

The full extent of Melody’s isolation doesn’t become clear until their 10-year reunion, more than three-quarters through the play, when the revelation lends electricity only in retrospect to what otherwise seems, as the title “Bite Me” might suggest, like a trope-heavy, ill-fated infatuation.

The fantasy of returning to the scene of one’s adolescent torment as a hot and successful adult is well-trodden, and Pipes’ use of it here is a bit too pat. Still, sometimes ridding closets of their ghosts is the only way to move forward.

‘Bite Me’

Through Oct. 22 at WP Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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