“Are you there,” implores 13 year old Julie at both ends of This Flat Earth to anyone who’s listening. Nine students were recently killed in a school shooting, disrupting her feelings of peace, safety, and normalcy. This topic should be the springboard for compelling discussion. Indeed there are some threads about socioeconomic conditions and adolescent turning points that click. But for the most part, this is a ninety minute missed opportunity that ultimately promises that trauma will be all but lost beneath the unrelenting waves of everyday life.
The piece is set in the recent past, and yet somehow Julie has no idea that hers is not the first school to have gone through such an experience. She believes that her persistent jealousy of a talented and popular girl who died might have caused the tragedy. In her program notes, playwright Lindsey Ferrentino tells how she experienced a similar sense of misplaced power when the incidents of 9/11 occurred the day after she had written a diary entry about the joys of peacetime. The transference of those feelings to sadly more common circumstance are diminishing to her main character. The excuse provided for Julie’s ignorance is that her father is too poor to have purchased a laptop. But even her best friend/would-be-boyfriend Zander seems to think the girl just hasn’t been paying attention.
The casting of Ella Kennedy Davis as Julie doesn’t do much to shore up the character as an interesting representative of her generation. While speaking too quickly at a very high pitch and slurring key words is all too realistic, it also left many of the audience members trying to keep up as they attempted to fill in the missed dialogue. Faring much better is the gifted Ian Saint-Germain, who captures the natural flow of Zander’s assuredness and awkwardness. Lucas Papaelias has trouble navigating the clumsy role of Julie’s father, Dan, but it is hard to tell how much of the difficulty is in the lines and how much in his interpretation. While no parent can protect a child from all dangers, widower Dan comes across as particularly ill-equipped and Papaelias often flails around in his skin. In the role of Lisa, a mother who lost a child in the tragedy, Cassie Beck is also constrained by her character’s limited responses. The only adult providing any constructive contribution is Lynda Gravátt’s upstairs neighbor Cloris. Naturally she can’t answer the impossible, but she delivers sincere and often amusing descriptions of effective coping mechanisms.
The talented director Rebecca Taichman does her best to underscore the truer emotions in the script by matching it with genuinely motivated physicality. Dane Laffrey’s two story set works wonderfully, though it could use a few more tonal touches. Costume designer Paloma Young has put together a fitting wardrobe, particularly with a bag of clothes that plays a critical role. Adding to the mood as well as forwarding the story is cellist Christine H. Kim under the musical direction of Christian Frederickson.
This Flat Earth is one of several recent productions that poses probing questions about the world we are leaving to the new generation. The Artistic Director claims it was never conceived as a production about gun violence, but opening just a month after events at Parkland it’s impossible to view it separate from that issue. Even when evaluated as an artistic expression, the play is wan when compared to similar offerings. While there are moments when the authentic psyches of the teens shine through, there are too many uninspiring stretches. Performances of this world premiere continue through April 29 at Playwrights Horizons. For tickets and information visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/flat-earth/.