Theatergoers looking to escape the unforgiving February chill, rejoice: “Pains of Youth,” the newly founded Cake Shop Theater Company’s stellar debut production at the Access Theater, offers a roiling bonfire of passion, manipulation, and betrayal at which audiences can warm themselves. Cake Shop, founded last March by alumni Casey Hayes-Deats, CC ’10, and Katie Lupica, CC ’11, aims to “give an uncensored voice to characters and creators coming of age—particularly women,” according to its mission statement. It does so this season with a modern update on Ferdinand Bruckner’s heady study of jaded, sexually capricious medical students in 1920s Vienna who “savagely experiment on life—and each other,” according to their website.
Hayes-Deats and Lupica created Cake Shop to honor a credo frequently recommended to Hayes- Deats during her time at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting: “Make your own work.”
Regarding the kind of theater Cake Shop seeks to showcase, Lupica said she and Hayes-Deats “wanted to acknowledge that we are a company founded by women, and that we naturally gravitate towards work with unexpected insights into the female experience.” She added that “more and more women are shaping the industry and a wider variety of women’s stories are being told.”
“Pains of Youth”—a production touted as “‘Girls’ meets ‘The Great Gatsby’”—was a script that originally intimidated Lupica, who candidly said that she was “terrified of most things about this play.” The duo said they ultimately selected it because it manages to be eerily relevant to today’s generation, while still speaking to the cultural milieu of the period in which it was written.
“Ferdinand Bruckner wrote ‘Pains of Youth’ to look at a particular generation coming of age—a highly educated, war-torn, disillusioned group who, a decade later, would form the main constituency of the Nazi Party,” Lupica said.
Pointing out that the wide-eyed, restless young students carousing in Vienna beer halls eventually ended up forming a large faction of Hitler’s followers, Lupica praised how Bruckner’s story asserts that “the angst and struggles of early adulthood can be laughed at and satirized, but should absolutely not be ignored.” Also striking to Lupica were “the parallels between the characters and the aimless, bitter milennials we see portrayed on TV or lamented in the media.”
The play operates in a similar way to a chemical experiment. Seven wildly different characters are put in a room, and their warring kaleidoscope of personalities, philosophies, neuroses, and fetishes react as explosively as volatile elements. Particularly thrilling about the show is that, unlike many period pieces, it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, allowing its fully realized female characters to seduce and spar with each other in equal measure.
Hayes-Deats plays Marie, the show’s ingénue, whose internal darkness slowly begins to reveal itself as she tangles with the more staunchly hedonistic of her circle of friends, such as her self-destructive, sapphic playmate Desiree (Rachel McKeon) and the wolfish, bewitchingly manipulative rogue Freder (Jacob Trussell).
Hayes-Deats appreciates the experience of playing a Viennese young woman of another century whose struggles are nonetheless relatable. “The more time I spend playing Marie, the more I recognize her in myself,” she said. Marie appears at first to be breezily accomplishing the modern ideal of the woman who has it all, but the pressures of balancing aspirations and societal expectations soon take their toll.
“Women today certainly have more freedom to define the terms of their own success, but I do think the ideal is to be the sort of woman who can juggle it all,” she said. “It can be very easy to fall into the trap of beating yourself up every time you let one of the balls drop.”
Cake Shop Theater Company’s anti-heroines passionately struggle, soliloquize, denounce, desire, and even sometimes throw food in their parlor and tie romantic rivals’ hair to chair legs. It’s the troupe’s dedication to bringing these criminally underrepresented sides of womanhood to the forefront that make them a company to watch.
“Pains of Youth” runs through March 2 at Access Theater, 380 Broadway, at White Street. Tickets start at $18.00.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Casey Hayes-Deats as CC ’12. She graduated in 2010. Spectator regrets the error.