First, a moment of recognition for Stage West and its commitment to new work. Like a Billion Likes won the company's 2016 Southwest Playwriting Contest, and this full production is light-years above an obligatory workshop or staged reading.
It's a technically impressive, fully realized mounting of Erik Forrest Jackson's new play — but its shiny presentation can't gloss over how far the piece still inherently has to go.
With a social media premise that's already dangerously close to being outdated and direction that highlights the script's unevenness, Stage West's production is as scattered as the attention span of its teenage protagonist. Misty Riggs (Delaney Milbourn) is an ordinary, lonely high-schooler who yearns to be noticed, yet makes misstep after misstep in her selfish quest for recognition.
As entertaining as Milbourn is, with her exaggerated mugging and exasperated flouncing, her character teeters on one-note caricature. It's a problem that plagues most of the play's five characters, with the notable exception being Misty's best friend, Alix.
Mikaela Krantz, who has long played youngsters who are wise beyond their years, digs deeper with the more straightforward Alix, who's perfectly fine being neither cool nor admired. She is, though, by her school's enigma: Jacey Collier, a gender-fluid person who is basically a walking exposition in a skirt and combat boots.
Evan Michael Wood is coolly self-possessed as Jacey, offering up each detailed explanation of preferred pronouns and sexual leanings with a measured delivery that thankfully discourages any annoying preachiness. But as a triangle develops between Jacey, Alix, and Misty, the play starts to feel like a Very Special Episode.
That feeling is amplified by the two adults, both of whom are in positions of power over these impressionable students yet often behave like their emotional equals. Stage West executive producer Dana Schultes plays Alix's mom, Colleen, a guidance counselor who is pursuing an unfulfilling affair with the principal (Aaron Roberts, once again fulfilling his "creepy guy" duties).
Considering that the play starts with Misty snapping an incriminating selfie in the principal's office, it's hard to be shocked as the action only escalates in a pulpy manner. Choppy, short scenes stunt any promise of momentum, which is further suppressed by director Garret Storms' insistence that each scene change — and there are many — be carried out with the full pageantry of pop music and emoji projections. Even if it's just to slightly re-angle a bed to indicate another bedroom, we get a mini concert.
Seancolin Hankins' set evokes the hipness of a New York City loft, though we learn early that the play is set in North Texas. Nate Davis' cheeky emojis fly across the pivot-able brick walls, though only sometimes do they seem to relate to or comment on the previous scene's action. With so much brick and white screen to play with, Luke Atkison has a ball with the energetic lighting, which helps keep the pacing quick.
Though only around 90 minutes, Like a Billion Likes feels even more bite-size thanks to all the surrounding noise. But in an era that thrives on distraction, maybe that's just echoing what the kids say.
Stage West's production of Like a Billion Likes runs through February 11.