Review: In ‘Invasive Species,’ the Acting Bug Bites, Dramatically

Maia Novi’s “Invasive Species” is being marketed as an outrageous dark comedy, but it’s a quieter play than that: about being an Argentine immigrant with Hollywood ambitions, a graduate acting student at Yale and a psychiatric inpatient plagued by intrusive thoughts.

“My name is Maia,” the play’s central character (Novi) tells the audience near the top of the show. “And this is a true story.”

Well, true-ish, given that we’ve just seen her get bitten by the Acting Bug (Julian Sanchez), a human-size creature with a giant proboscis whose process of infecting Maia involves spitting voluptuously onto her face from above. A bit of hallucinatory license, then, has sometimes been taken.

Directed by Michael Breslin at the Vineyard’s Dimson Theater, the play fragments into different worlds. The most realistic is the hospital in New Haven where Maia wakes up, in March 2022, to find she is a patient — admitted to a children’s ward, where suicide is a temptation for some of the adolescent patients.

The play’s other worlds are more heightened and satirical, though they, too, have the whiff of veracity: the drama school, where a teacher says that Maia — trying to lose her accent by diligently imitating Gwyneth Paltrow — has a “lazy tongue”; the Connecticut dating scene, where a dimwitted American bro swallows every stereotype-laced lie that Maia concocts, prankishly, about her family in Argentina; a film set where a British director who casts her as Eva Perón has a blithely wrongheaded sense of authenticity.

Partially inspired by the 1977 production of Spalding Gray’s theater piece “Rumstick Road,” an investigation into his mother’s suicide, “Invasive Species” carries the thrum of fear that can accompany a family history of mental illness. Maia worries — so does her father — about what she might have inherited from her own mother.

Presented by a group of producers who include the playwright-provocateur Jeremy O. Harris (“Slave Play”), Breslin’s roommate when they studied drama at Yale, “Invasive Species” is crisply directed on a nearly bare stage. The supporting cast members (who include Raffi Donatich, Sam Gonzalez and Alexandra Maurice) are quicksilver-changeable in their multiple roles, and it’s always clear which reality or unreality the characters have stepped into, even when worlds overlap. (Yichen Zhou’s lighting is instrumental in that.)

This is a well acted, neatly assembled, carefully modulated play with a cumulative force that is less than it might have been. The satire — of drama school, of xenophobia — isn’t the freshest, and the obliqueness of the hospital strand softens its impact, and ultimately the play’s.

“Invasive Species” is a portrait of a young woman attempting, for the sake of ambition and survival, to force herself into various molds that do not fit who she truly is.

“Pretend,” one of the teenage patients advises her, practically. “You should be good at that — you’re an actress, right?”

Invasive Species
Through June 30 at the Vineyard Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes.

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