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Theater Review: “Moth” at Studio Theatre

Tom Story makes his directorial debut with Declan Greene’s play about a pair of troubled teens.

David Nate Goldman and Allie Villarreal in Moth at Studio 2ndStage. Photograph by Igor Dmitry.

Set amid a horrific school tragedy, the ground being covered by Declan Greene’s Moth is depressingly familiar territory. Still, director Tom Story manages to assert himself by ratcheting up the tension in this Studio 2ndStage production in new and interesting ways.

Moth is primarily concerned with two characters, though the actors playing them embody several other roles as the action proceeds. Sebastian (David Nate Goldman) is an anime-loving bully target; his friend Claryssa (Allie Villarreal) is an overweight tough girl who does her best to hang with the emo crowd. It’s not quite an unlikely friendship, but it does have its hurdles, particularly as classmates zero in to taunt each of them in different ways. A particularly brutal encounter drives a wedge between them, one made even more apparent after Sebastian’s actions become stranger—and more alarming.

In today’s uneasy climate, it isn’t hard to figure out where Moth is going, and Greene’s dialogue and story progression could benefit with some more nuance and surprises. The play, making its US premiere at Studio, isn’t quite as provocative as it seems to think it is, and the 75-minute running time doesn’t progress at the clip that it should. But Story, known to DC audiences as an actor as he makes his area directing debut, has a way of getting the most out of the material and his performers.

Story keeps his audience on edge with eerie sound effects, intrusive red lighting, and the jarring, effective slamming of school lockers within the simple school-hallway set. A body double helps lend additional confusion to an almost-dance sequence where multiple Sebastians work their way in and out of the locker landscape. Even the play’s more predictable elements seem less so in Story’s hands, as the audience gets thrown off by the timing of “bangs” and musical crescendos. (Moth has a smart soundtrack propelled by influences from Sebastian’s beloved anime series.)

Of the two performers, Villarreal has less to work with when it comes to the disaffected Claryssa, defined largely by her tendency to lash out. The actress, however, shows range, particularly when embodying one of the school’s more vicious bullies, Clinton (the performers slip in and out of characters in a way that nods to adolescents as unreliable narrators). Goldman, for his part, is working with a character who may have some stereotypical qualities, but is nevertheless an unfamiliar and well-realized creation. There’s a wiry physicality to Goldman’s performance that helps propel the sad, erratic nature of the troubled Sebastian, and his fate is no less disturbing for its seeming inevitability.

Moth is at Studio 2ndStage through May 4. Running time is about 75 minutes, with no intermission. Tickets ($30 to $35) are available via Studio’s website.