With a lead character’s Morrissey fandom presented front and center in publicity materials, and a title taken from a Smiths song that also inspired the name of a post-punk band, Pretty Girls Make Graves is bound to draw an audience of music fans looking for a little nostalgia at the Minnesota Fringe Festival. Prospective viewers, though, would do well to read the rest of the show’s description: this thorny, unsettling show is at least as much about sex quirks and ironic exercise equipment as it is about music.
A two-woman play written by Sam L. Landman, Pretty Girls Make Graves tells the story of an uncomfortable encounter between Carla (Emily Dussault) and BMX (Katie Willer), a woman previously unknown to Carla who she finds in her ex-boyfriend’s apartment when Carla stops by to collect some of her things. (One of the best things about Landman’s script is how patiently he waits to reveal exactly why the boyfriend himself is not present.)
Supplying Carla with box wine and weed, BMX presses her for details about her relationship with the absent man. As they talk about their lives, each of the women finds herself fitting into a stereotype held by the other: Carla finds BMX to be defiantly alt, as exemplified by her Smiths obsession, while BMX reveals her condescension towards the world’s “basic bitches” who enjoy mainstream comforts.
Landman admits in his bio that “he likes the Smiths, but not nearly as much as BMX in this play.” I could have guessed that from the dialogue, which is oddly disconnected from the music being played by the characters on a portable turntable. Morrissey is described as howling when he’s actually purring; and Jethro Tull is reviled as a “flute orgy” despite the fact that no flutes are audible in the passage we’re hearing. If you go to this play expecting a new High Fidelity, you’re going to be disappointed.
Where the show shines is in the naturalistic tone created by the actors, under the direction of Natalie Novacek. The fast pace of the Fringe means that you rarely see performers embodying characters as completely as they do in conventional productions with longer runs, but here—despite overwritten dialogue that sometimes feels forces—we actually start to feel like we’re hanging out with these two women.
The interaction between the two is, by design, never entirely comfortable; it shades from a superficial awkwardness into a more profound disconnect. We come to care about the characters, which makes a late-in-the-game plot twist especially jarring. You may find it thrillingly shocking, or you might find yourself offended by the way it invokes yet another stereotype of female behavior. Whatever your reaction, you’re likely to find that these Pretty Girls stick with you much longer than many of the other characters you’ll meet at the Fringe.