Wednesday, January 27, 2016

135. Review: I AND YOU (seen January 21, 2016)

“Not I but Maybe You"
  • Stars range from 5-1.

Rule no. 1 in the reviewer’s unwritten manual is: “Thou shalt not divulge spoilers (at least not without a ‘spoiler alert’).” If you’re reviewing the first performance of HAMLET you don’t reveal that almost all the principals die, or that in A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE Blanche not only is raped but goes off to the looney bin. You can dance around the big secrets, offering suggestive clues (read, for example, the reviews, including mine, of the recently opened OUR MOTHER’S AFFAIR), but you do your best not to give the playwrights’ game away. I won’t reveal the unexpected ending of Laura Gunderson’s tricky I AND YOU, at 59E59 Theaters, but I can’t help saying it’s brilliantly produced nonsense that follows a common trope found in too many movies and TV shows; it's also the most utrageously manipulative, unearned, big reveal in any play I’ve seen in years. I don’t buy it but maybe you—like my theatre guest—will. The reviewers covering Lowell, MA's Merrimack Repertory Theatre production, following the play's premiere at the  Marin Theatre in Mill Valley, CA, certainly did. 

Kayla Ferguson, Reggie D. White. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Ms. Gunderson’s 90-minute one-act, which uses the same cast and director (Sean Daniels) seen at the Merrimack, is set in the attic-like bedroom (great work from designer Michael Carnahan) of a white, rebellious, defiantly defensive, high school girl named Caroline (Kayla Ferguson). The room is dolled up to the rafters with teenage decorative detritus, including Caroline’s beloved stuffed turtle. In bursts a black boy, Anthony (Reggie D. White), a schoolmate of Caroline’s from her English class, and wants her help on a Walt Whitman project they’ve been asked to submit the following day. Caroline, who’s home because of a potentially fatal liver ailment (she communicates with the outside world—even her mother, elsewhere in the house—through her smartphone and laptop), has no idea of who he is and screams like bloody murder to make him leave.
Kayla Ferguson, Reggie D, White. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Reggie, a sweet, friendly, academically gifted, athletic (albeit, in Mr. White’s portrayal, decidedly nerdy), doctor’s son, isn’t so easy to get rid of, and the play charts his progress in overcoming Caroline’s resistance to both his presence, her reluctance to work on the project, and, through his uplifting explication of Whitman’s positivity, her depression. He uses John Coltrane’s jazz music to get under her skin; her own favorite music is old-time rock and roll. Gradually, they find the commonalities they share.
Kayla Ferguson, Reggie D. White. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Caroline may claim no knowledge of or interest in Whitman or Leaves of Grass, but by the end, when she makes a video explaining the poet’s use, in the book’s “Song of Myself” poetry, of the pronouns “I” and “you,” her knowledge has somehow exponentially expanded to the level of a college professor, albeit one wallowing in rampant self-consciousness. So much of Whitman—much of it related to the theme of death—is quoted and discussed during the play, in fact, that its biggest takeaway may be your desire to read him again and see for yourself what all his “yawping” is about.
Kayla Ferguson, Reggie D. White. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
Ms. Gunderson’s dialogue is rich and her iterations of teen-speak are fun; her playwriting, though, stumbles, with too many forced dramatic crises or revelations. A principal example is the sudden, albeit very reluctant disclosure by Reggie midway through that while playing in a basketball game earlier in the day one of his teammates keeled over and died. Even though you realize later why it took so long for him to bring up this traumatic event—which both he and Caroline are horrified by—it’s the kind of thing that would in real life have been mentioned earlier. But, of course, this isn’t real life.
Reggie D, White, Kayla Ferguson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
The hyper-energetic Ms. Ferguson (regardless of Caroline’s ailment) and Mr. White are both talented, but, being in their 20s, rely on every exaggerated, clichéd bit of teen behavior in the book: they fidget, roll their eyes, press the heels of their palms to their eyes, squeeze their eyes shut in frustration, distaste, or desperation, and may make you think of how any two comedians on SNL might play over-the-top teens. Mr. White, especially, has the most annoying habit of expressing his roiling emotions by inserting his hands inside his sweater and twisting the fabric around, or doing something similar with the strap of his messenger bag. And if you can believe that sexual oil and water can mix, you’ll also believe the chemistry between Anthony and Caroline when their newfound friendship slides into a more romantic mode.
Reggie D. White, Kayla Ferguson. Photo: Carol Rosegg.
I AND YOU manages to hold one’s attention throughout but its characters lack authenticity, its structure is artificial, and its conclusion is off the charts. I suspect this is a minority report and anticipate learning how you responded.

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59E59 Theaters
59 East Fifty-Ninth Street, NYC

Through February 28

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