School life can be hard, but it was especially difficult for Schuyler Quinn, writer and performer of “Unsatisfactory.” In a show loosely framed as a college interview, Quinn tells the story of getting kicked out of four different schools and not making it into a single university.
The hook is engaging and cathartic. Quinn enters with an enthusiastic yet relaxed “Hi, guys!” After loosening up the audience with off‑the‑cuff jokes, she takes out a binder meant to represent her scholastic history as she attempts to explain herself and her odd situation.
Quinn’s troubles began in the second grade, when she started receiving weekly school reports that judged her academic performance unsatisfactory. Teachers asked her parents, “What are you going to do about it?” The second grader felt self‑conscious and discouraged by her perceived failures. This, Quinn explains, made her act out for attention and earned her a psychiatric diagnosis of “learning and behavioral concerns.” Although her Quaker private school was initially tolerant of her misbehavior, Quinn was eventually expelled for violent tendencies and forced to enter public schooling.
And so, a pattern emerges: Quinn enters a new school, and while initially awestruck by the stark contrast from what she’s experienced before, she soon feels she doesn’t belong. At public school, she feels looked down upon by principals and teachers. In reform school, she feels like the only sane person in an asylum, and in prep school she feels unintelligent and unimportant. At a third private school in Miami for her senior year, she considers dropping out over bad grades, but eventually finds a way to graduate.
The relatable story of not knowing where she belongs is made murky by amusing digressions. Early on, there’s an anecdote about discovering Puerto Rican culture that’s reductive in its stereotyping. Around the midpoint, there’s a fair bit of “punching down” in a story about students with mental illnesses and disabilities putting on a school play. Moments like these and many others don’t exactly make it easy to sympathize with Quinn.
But that contemptibility is partly by design. Quinn’s self‑assured “oh, please” attitude is endearing, charismatic and even charming. At the end of the play, she tells her interviewer that she “can talk to almost anyone,” and she’s right. The delivery of her jokes, while lacking slightly in variety, is spot on. Quinn has a great way of laughing with the audience and pacing her stories to make the most of her material. But between the numerous prep schools, sports cars, litigious parents and straight‑up privilege, there’s not enough self‑deprecation or self‑awareness in this TriBeCa rich‑girl story.
“Unsatisfactory” has a sturdy enough foundation to be something special. Quinn’s struggles with teachers who don’t believe in her is heartbreaking, and her story has that “must be heard to be believed” craziness that often makes for a great play.
Yet many interesting narrative threads go underused, and the framing device with the college interviewer isn’t mentioned again until the finale. More signposting with that device might have helped the pacing and overall flow of the show. Although funny in parts and supported by solid storytelling, the show’s structure is obscured by unsubstantial padding and an underwhelming ending.
It’s easy to imagine Quinn reading this review and snarking something like, “Umm, yeah – excuse me, but who even asked you?” That kind of memorable character work is worthy of applause. Whether it elicits empathy for you, however, will determine whether you walk away satisfied. “Unsatisfactory” Written and Performed by Schuyler Quinn Oct. 10 at 3:30pm Producer: Rachel Dodson Photo: courtesy of the production United Solo 2018 Theatre Row 410 West 42nd Street New York City
JAMES BARTHOLOMEW is a writer and musician living in New York City. He is an administrator of the Fordham University Theatre Program and an avid lover of the arts.