“Joyce Baking,” the full-length, student-written play opening BYU’s Pardoe Theatre season, may be eye-opening to people who have no connection with the university’s social scene, but tells those of us who live it every day absolutely nothing we didn’t already know.
What does “Joyce Baking,” written by Josh Brady and directed by Eric Samuelsen, tell us about the BYU dating scene? Well, it tells us that guys are jerks, though generally without meaning to be, and that girls are catty and back-stabbing, though generally without meaning to be. It tells us that religion is such a part of BYU students’ lives that they can slip in and out of a spiritual conversation in a matter of seconds, and even combine the sacred and secular in their speech patterns. (One girl insists that since she has no social life, her roommate needs to develop one and tell her about it, in order to perform “vicarious work for the socially dead.”) It tells us that being “nice” is often a liability: “You just have to get to know her to like her,” says one. “Yeah, ‘nice’ people are like that,” says the other.
And ultimately, “Joyce Baking” reminds us that for all the talking we do about the need to be more “charitable” and “Christ-like,” most of us actually do very little toward that end.
The play is the story of two BYU roommates. Joyce (Colleen Baum) is a returned missionary, nice and sweet, very spiritual and “good,” and a great cook. She cooks for everyone; that’s just what she does. Her roommate and best friend is Becca (Jjana Valentiner Morrill), a slightly less mature girl who has made social relationships her life’s work. She knows just how long to date a guy before she kisses him, how to orchestrate Joyce’s life and turn it into something good — everything about relationships except how to hang onto a decent one of her own. She dates losers because she lacks self-confidence, all the while exuding exactly the confidence she seems to lack.
Along comes Alex (Javen Ronald Tanner), a recently returned missionary whom Joyce becomes modestly, blushingly smitten with. She bakes for him in order to woo him — something not uncommon at BYU. And it seems to be working … at least for a while.
The play is a dead-on accurate depiction of the BYU dating scene. The characters talk and act exactly the way BYU students talk and act, and what is so noteworthy about the play is that there is absolutely nothing noteworthy about it. References are made to the exact TV shows BYU students watch, the exact things they do, the exact things they say, the exact subjects that are a part of their culture. Most of the laughs come not because we have seen something unexpected or unusual, but precisely because it is NOT unexpected or unusual. It’s the “it’s funny because it’s true” method of comedy. Had a million other plays already been written on the same subject, this one wouldn’t be funny, because we’ve all made many of these jokes ourselves already. (What returned missionary HASN’T pretended to use the “Commitment Pattern” on someone in a non-missionary setting?) But since the play is new, we’re laughing because we can’t believe we’re seeing our lives played out on stage in the Pardoe Theatre.
Tanner plays Alex as typical as they come, as far as BYU males go. His part isn’t written with a great deal of depth — the play is not told through his point of view, after all — but I imagine he comes across exactly the way girls perceive guys as coming across (which frightens me a little, being a BYU guy myself). Morrill’s portrayal of Becca is also very accurate as she bemoans the latest moron she’s dating, insists she’s fat (which she isn’t), and expertly guides Joyce through her relationship with Alex. Her character is perhaps the most complex of the three, and Morrill pulls it off well.
And then there’s Joyce. Colleen Baum is nothing less than astounding in this role, particularly if you’ve seen her in anything else. Joyce is so realistic, like a thousand girls I know — and yet the real-life Baum is not much like them at all. This speaks volumes of Baum’s acting ability, throwing herself into a character that might normally come off as one-dimensional. With Baum playing her, Joyce is more than just “nice” or “kind” — she’s sensitive and delicate, optimistic about the future and yet pessimistic about the present. She’s naive, too — hopelessly naive — and so sympathetic that one can’t help but adore her and feel as devastated as she does when things don’t go well for her.
This is a great play, but not because it depicts BYU life so accurately. Simply showing something the way it is doesn’t automatically make it funny; showing it and then skewing it a little is what brings in the humor, and “Joyce Baking” does some of that skewing. (Though there are a few too many “Hey, look, it’s real life, so it must be funny!” kinds of jokes, particularly with the running gag about Alex’s priesthood lesson.) But even more importantly, this show demonstrates the side of BYU life that is not so easy to depict, and that is not so easy to think about. The side that often goes ignored: that dating is painful, and that good people get hurt.
Ultimately, for as funny and entertaining as this play is, it is also sad and upsetting. Every BYU student should see it and then re-evaluate how he or she is treating the opposite sex. There’s an important message here, and I hope people see it through all the laughter.
A couple of the jokes in this play reminded me of jokes I made in my "Snide Remarks" column. Then I remembered that they were jokes in UPCOMING columns -- meaning they hadn't been printed yet, meaning Mr. Paranoid me panicked, fearing people would read the column and think I stole the jokes from "Joyce Baking." This never actually happened, but it's a worrisome thing to think about, anyway, and I do so enjoy worrying.