Two couples tell the story in Y York’s play Framed, running through Sunday at 18th & Union. Joanie and Nick DaSilva (Susanna Burney, Joe Seefeldt) are a frustrated painter and a financially successful operator in a gradually revealed profession; May and Jake Carter (Maile Wong, Jeremy Steckler) are younger and poorer, and both want something from the DaSilvas. May wants to paint, though only as a pastime (when she utters the word “hobby,” Joanie winces like it was the rawest profanity); though brand-new to the medium, her work turns out to have a certain something that Joanie’s lacks. Jake, meanwhile, yearns to upwardly mobilize himself, and latches on to Nick like a week-old golden retriever.
It’s an engaging premise, loaded with satiric potential, but York, to be blunt, botches it with one particular miscalculation: her characters’ excessive naivete. Joanie seems to have been at the game for a while, with a fairly extensive output and a teaching position—so why is she so angrily devastated to be turned down by a gallery, as if it were her first application? (Career artists don’t implode over rejections, they shrug and get back to work.) York seemingly doesn’t care much for Joanie, who yammers a lot about “technique” merely as a weapon to discourage May; as the playwright’s commentary on the creativity-killing effect of academicism, it’s pretty heavy-handed.
Worse, the condescension in the script’s portrait of Jake approaches insult. He works in a garage, but even though he’s great at it, loves it and presumably makes a steady and decent living (there’ll always be cars to fix), he wants more—or, more precisely, York makes him want more, implying that genuine contentedness really isn’t possible that far down the social ladder, which apparently is where auto repair lands you. True, York does allow Nick to give the relentlessly self-denigrating Jake a pep talk, encouraging him to appreciate his rare and vitally useful skill, but she leaves the young man unconvinced by it—even going so far as to give him and May a long, unpleasant and gratuitous scene in which he’s crushed by self-consciousness about his grimy hands.
It’s part of a larger and grosser insult in that neither Jake nor May have the slightest idea, right up to the final plot twist, how they’re being yanked around by Nick and Joanie. I left wondering what purpose a play can serve, in America in 2018, in which two working-class people—portrayed as dopes, and whose embarrassment over manual labor is presented as a given—are successfully manipulated by wealthier people. It can’t be to reveal and skewer upper-class immorality, since Nick ends up being the most sympathetic of the four. I hate to think that this is what York thinks of blue-collar workers—and hate even more to think that Americans who feel looked down on by “elites” may have a point after all.
The production does provide a welcome showcase for local artists. Nine new paintings make up the back wall of the set—all on sale and helpfully included in a brochure you'll be handed as you depart. And the prerecorded music, by Wayne Horvitz's group Zony Mash, leans on the tasty retro sound of the rock organ, lending a little more comic sparkle to a script that can be, in moments, very hard going.
Through 11/25. Times and prices vary. 18th & Union, Capitol Hill, 1406 18th Ave.; 18thandunion.org.