“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/.
The Thanksgiving Play
In the right hands, satire can be a terrific educational tool. This was clearly in the mind of award-winning playwright and activist Larissa FastHorse when she chose to go broad with The Thanksgiving Play. Pained by the way the typical Thanksgiving story obliterates the voices of her people, the Sicangu Lakota uses laughter rather than lecture to take on all those insulting myths. This is the award winner’s first New York production and it’s a worthy entrance. Through her four well-intentioned if off-base characters, she blows up those oft-repeated stories of pilgrims showering America’s indigenous peoples with respect and side dishes. The results are uneven and she’s likely preaching to at large number of regular choir members, but a good time can still be had.
Greg Keller, Jennifer Bareilles, Jeffrey Bean, and Margo Seibert; photo by Joan Marcus
The economical cast of achingly progressive characters are developing a holiday performance that celebrates Native American Heritage month for a elementary school audience. The director of this play within a play is Logan, an anxiety prone vegan who has pulled together an array of small niche grants in order to fund her vision of a more honest Thanksgiving story. Her school play will co-star Disney-obsessed actress Alicia and Logan’s yoga-loving street performer boyfriend, Jaxton. Rounding out the “creative team” is Caden, a playwright-wanna be and first grade teacher. For the majority of the 90 minute runtime, these well-intentioned souls improvise and brainstorm their way towards an increasingly awkward outcome. Their endeavors are occasionally interrupted by wildly off-kilter musical numbers covering all the cringe inducing story elements they are trying to leave behind.
Under the direction of Moritz Von Stuelpnagel, the dialogue starts out at such a high pitch it doesn’t have enough room to grow. Jennifer Bareilles as Logan is a constant bundle of nerves. Greg Keller’s Jaxton’s oozes PC doctrine from every pore. Margo Seibert’s Alicia is such an airhead she’s perfected the art of looking at the ceiling. And Jeffrey Bean’s Caden is like a Jack Russel terrier, excited just to be in their company. All four quality actors do their best to add range and fair better with the piece’s physical humor. These moments includes an uncoupling ritual and reading aloud from several fantastically illustrated textbooks.
The design team mostly strikes the right comedic notes. The single set by Wilson Chin combines classic classroom elements with some of the most appropriately inappropriate theater posters. Costume designer Tilly Grimes delivers equally well with liberal casual and tacky pageant wear. Lighting created by Isabella Byrd highlights the action as it shifts from faux intense to intensely faux.
As both a comedy and a lesson plan, this production of The Thanksgiving Play would likely earn a B- for its insufficient build and variation. But it has heart and successfully serves as a reminder that the upcoming family holiday is fraught with misunderstandings that go far down and way back. Certainly if you’ve ever had a Caucasion friend who built a sweat lodge right next to his jacuzzi to honor “their heritage,” you will recognize FastHorse’s creations. And even if you haven’t, you’ll be reminded that what you’ve learned about US history is not necessarily the full story.
Performances are scheduled to run through November 25 at the Peter Jay Sharp theater at Playwrights Horizons. For tickets and information visit https://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/thanksgiving-play/.