The (e)Book of Dragon

Lorinda Lisitza (center), as e-author and accidental cult creator Justine Drake. Photo by Michael Middleton

BY SEAN EGAN | On the eve of the release of her debut book (well, e-book), Justine Drake is a bundle of excitement, fragile nerves and near crippling self-doubt. Her book, which provides the play with its title, is “Dragon’s Breath,” the first in a series of four YA Paranormal Romance/Adventure stories (a la “Twilight”).

Drake dreams of seeing her work in print one day, and the play follows her march along various meeting with her agent and book readings — gaining haters and fans along the way. The twist? Some of her newfound fans get way too into it, mistakenly finding deep philosophical revelations in the pulpy stories — and eventually forming a cult religion around the series, to Justine’s profound frustration.

Writer Michael C. O’Day smartly keeps “Dragon’s Breath” grounded for as long as possible before committing to the insanity of the premise. He provides characters with specificity and depth — especially Justine, who uses her work to help get through difficult times, and Laura, her biggest fan, who uses the fantasy provided in the books as an escape from her problems.

‘Breath’ may overstretch, but fun nonetheless

Early scenes between Justine and Laura that find them opening up to each other and bonding are genuinely funny and affecting. It’s becomes a testament to the ways in which the creative process and art can help heal people, and bring them closer together. In addition, “Dragon’s Breath” remains consistently funny and biting throughout, by lampooning and criticizing the publishing industry and fan culture.

Unfortunately, the final stretch of the play doesn’t quite stick the landing. As the satire on fan culture calcifies into a religious allegory, the points trying to be made become a bit muddled, and the characters get lost in the shuffle — most disappointingly realized in Laura’s transformation from socially maladroit (but sympathetic young fan) to crazed, wide-eyed cult leader. By going so far over the top, the play never has the chance to get back to its emotional core, or deal seriously with the psychological implications of Laura’s actions. It earns points for audacity, and is full of ideas, for sure — but at the sacrifice of humor and engrossing character work.

DRAGON’S BREATH | A FringeNYC Presentation
Written by Michael C. O’Day
Directed by Mikaela Kafka
Runtime: 1h 30m
Aug. 15, 2 p.m. | Aug. 16, 4:45 p.m. | Aug. 23, 7 p.m.
At Teatro LATEA at the Clemente
(107 Suffolk St., btw. Rivington & Delancey)
For tickets ($18), purchase at FringeNYC.org | By Smartphone: FringeOnTheFly.com | By credit card at the Box Office | By cash at FringeCentral (114 Norfolk St., btw. Rivington & Delancey Sts.)

It’s easy to forgive the ending when the rest is so good, though — especially the cast. Lorinda Lisitza makes Justine a distinctive comic creation, perfectly overemphasizing every line of YA purple prose, while also managing to play her creative neurosis for laughs and pathos, often simultaneously. She’s equally adept at playing the role of the sanest person in the room, without losing any of the nervous energy that makes her relatable and endearing, helping to give the production a solid center when the plot starts twisting in increasingly demented directions.

As Laura, Hannah Sloat is appropriately off-kilter and earnest in the early goings, while later on selling the absurd apoplectic fervor her metamorphosis to cult leader calls for. Michael C. O’Day, the playwright himself, digs into the role of Rocco, a snarky, Hawaiian-shirt-wearing Internet critic who plagues Justine, with aplomb. O’Day plays him as a hyperbolic, vitriolic turbo-nerd in a performance that is both obnoxiously hilarious and unnervingly accurate — the most condescending and bitter recesses of comment threads personified.

Ultimately, “Dragon’s Breath” may overextend itself a little reaching for profundity — but that’s okay, because wit, cast, and commitment to character carry it. It’s ends up being just a fun, cool, enjoyable story — an accomplishment Justine Drake herself would be proud of.