INVASIVE SPECIES And The Hollywood Dream — Review


The company | Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Joey Sims
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May 17, 2024 8:40 AM

Perhaps I have some strange, blind trust in the institutions of Western medicine, more ingrained in me than I had realized.

Whatever the reason, I spent too much of Maia Novi’s new play Invasive Species waiting for a wise doctor to reassure us that, actually, Maia was locked away in this youth ward — an adult woman surrounded by 13-16 year old patients — for some logical reason. That her involuntary institutionalization was somehow entirely for Maia’s own benefit. 

Obviously, no such scene ever arrived. But I think Maia – at least, the version of Maia we meet in Novi’s searing, sharply witty new work, at The Vineyard’s Dimson Theater through June 30 – might empathize with my Hollywood-induced brain rot. After all, she settled on a lifelong dream of movie stardom after watching just a single film: The Amazing Spider-Man.  

Species opens on Maia discovering the Andrew Garfield-led blockbuster, wide-eyed at a movie theater in her home country of Argentina. As the Columbia Pictures logo music reaches its crescendo, she is filled with awe and wonder. And Maia knows what she must do. 

“I left my home, I left my friends and family,” she tells us. “I even left myself.”

A splintered distortion of reality itself — brought about (in part) by the glittering allure of Hollywood fictions — shapes Novi’s deeply engaging new play, here given breathless and destabilizing theatrical life in director Michael Breslin’s bare-bones staging. 

Drawn from Novi’s own experiences, Species follows Maia’s involuntary institutionalization during her time as an acting student at the Yale School of Drama. Following a nervous breakdown, Maia wakes to find herself in a New Haven youth ward. 

Maia insists she shouldn’t be there. But the quieter, grounded scenes of her treatment keep blurring with fantasies of playing Eva Peron in a film version of Evita, her lifelong dream achieved under the yoke of an oppressive English director (Julian Sanchez, particularly chameleonic in four roles) who keeps insisting Maia’s Argentinian accent “doesn’t sound right.”

The company | Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Novi and Breslin are unsparing in their depiction of the youth ward, presenting it as a cold and suffocating space. Doctors are barely present, while Nurse Elsa (an overly broad Rafaella Donatich, in one of five roles) is a tyrant. Maia gradually forms a bond with two teenage patients, Jacob (a sly and hilarious Sam Gonzalez, six roles total) and Akila, the ward’s de-facto leader. (Alexandra Maurice sticks mostly to playing Akila, and is superb — tragically joyless, the play’s sad beating heart.)

Does Maia belong among these kids? Is she truly “insane”? In tracing a fractured journey through Maia’s psyche, Novi complicates these questions before ultimately tossing them aside. Narrow-minded teachers and a toxic industry have distorted her sense of self, certainly, to the point where she is performing whichever “Maia” the given audience demands. But don’t we all indulge in those fictions? And while her fellow patients are in more immediate crisis, it’s not clear if this treatment is offering much of any help. 

Novi does not dismiss her own mental health crisis, nor does she too-cutely suggest, “We’re all a little bit insane!” Rather, she is probing the absurdities of easy definitions while confronting rigid, overburdened systems where too many people can get so easily lost. 

And also, it’s funny. Novi hits on the absurdity of the immigrant experience with an especially stinging wit — a running gag about repeating a goop mantra ad-nauseam to “find her Gwyneth” is especially droll. Less successful is the play’s industry satire, which is a bit insidery — jokes about airheaded agents and drug-addled acting students feel like well-trod territory. 

Amidst it all, Novi herself is a force of nature. It’s an honest performance, never falling into self-pity. If the play’s satire ultimately feels a little cold, just a bit distancing, Novi herself provides a warm and soul-searching center. Maia’s full identity still feels, by the play’s end, just out of reach. But a voice is taking form, all of its own. 

Invasive Species is now in performance through June 30, 2024. For tickets and more information, visit here

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Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre Magazine, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium, Broadway’s Best Shows, and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt, and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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