Debutante Debut

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:04

A coming of age tale gets the theatrical treatment

  Upper West Side Playwright Ryann Weir and director Annie Tippe have an obsession with powerful women and female ensemble casts. Now their obsession takes center stage.

Their original play "DEBUTANTE." debuts on April 23 at Goddard Riverside Community Center's Bernie Wohl Center, thanks in part to a successful Indiegogo campaign and a work exchange deal with the center that grants them the space for free, in exchange for community theater classes. The story focuses on a group of teenage heiresses in New York City as they prepare for their coming out parties, set against a backdrop of today's economic disparity, but with references to previous eras of prosperity (the characters guzzle Tab soda and watch "Dynasty").

"All of these 'little rich girls' have proximity to money but no ability to get it," Weir said. "In terms of the recent recession, there's also a certain feeling of guilt that they were born into enormous privilege during a time when the country was scraping by, and that influences a lot of their psychology."

There's Barbara, whose mother has recently committed suicide, and Frankie, an animal lover with autistic tendencies, and Brenda, who Weir called a "Quentin Tarantino heroine" who daydreams about killing her maid. They all attend Miss Peasgood's School for Etiquette, a nod to Miss Porter's School, as they prepare to come out to society.

"A lot of character traits of these three women come from enormous repression," said Weir. "These characters are obsessed with what it would be like to color outside the lines, because they're so accustomed to living in this really rigid, fear-based world where they're constantly told what they can't or shouldn't do."

Tippe and Weir, both 26, met as students at New York University's Playwright's Horizons drama program. Neither can relate to the financial situations of their characters, but they're both interested in privileged, mannered women. They previously co-created a play about American first ladies, who, Weir said, inhabit similar worlds as the characters in "DEBUTANTE."

"They're women who are so close to power, but have no agency over their lives," she said.

Tippe started researching storied debutantes Brenda Frazier and Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton, whose lives helped shape the characters in "DEBUTANTE." and whose Depression-era coming out parties were famously lavish.

"I really started looking at huge markers in their lives and tried to fill in the in-betweens, and the in-between is where the characters come from," said Tippe. Like Hutton, the fictional Barbara copes with her own mother's death and has to learn even the most basic of tasks, like how to ride a bike or where her household staff keeps the sugar.

Most of the characters are portrayed by fellow NYU alums, but Rochelle Slovin, 73, actress and founder of the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, where she acted as director for 30 years, plays Edna, Barbara's grandmother. While some of the younger characters might find the role of debutante outdated, Slovin's character sees value in the tradition.

"I believe very much in the power of graciousness, good manners, tradition," Slovin said of Edna. "[My character] comes from a time when maybe the world wasn't so sloppy and so full of distractions and media."

Tippe said it would have been easy to create a production that mocked the one percent, not unlike reality shows that hold up voyeuristic lenses to wealthy women, but Tippe and Weir's curiosities are more nuanced.

"The fascination with people who exist in this higher stratosphere of wealth is hugely important to us," said Tippe. "It led Ryann and I to start asking questions. How do you measure your worth if you're worth a billion dollars? How does that money influence your sense of self and identity, and your relationship with your family?"

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