Monday, April 9, 2018

198 (2017-2018): Review: THIS FLAT EARTH (seen April 5, 2018)

“When Bad Things Happen”

Like such recent plays as Scott Z. Burns’s The Library, Julia Cho’s Office Hour, Simon Stephens’s Punk Rock, and Nathaniel Sam Shapiro’s The Erlkings, Lindsey Ferrentino’s This Flat Earth is about schools and gun violence; however, it can’t quite make up its mind as to just what it wants to say about the issues. 
Above: Lynda Gravatt. Below: Ella Kennedy Davis, Ian Saint-Germain, Lucas Papaelias, Cassie Beck. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Ferrentino (Ugly Lies the  Bone), whose Amy and the Orphans, now at the Laura Pels, is about a woman with Down syndrome, has her heart in the right place when it comes to subjects of immediate emotional concern. She crafts individually effective scenes but struggles to mold them into well-focused, unified dramas, with consistently believable characters.
Ian Saint-Germain, Ella Kennedy Davis. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The most striking thing about This Flat Earth, whose 90 minutes take place in a New England seaside town, is Dane Laffrey’s impressive two-story set, craftily lit by Christopher Akerland. It shows a walkup whose upper floor is the flat of an elderly woman, Cloris (Lynda Gravátt), a widowed former cellist; the lower is the residence of Dan (Lucas Papaelias), a failed comedian with a low-paying job at the water company, and his 13-year-old daughter, Julie (Ella Kennedy Davis). An actual cellist, Christine H. Kim, sits at audience left, accompanying some scenes with classical selections.
Ian Saint-Germain, Ella Kennedy Davis, Lucas Papaelias. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The building is on a hill in a working-class neighborhood, overlooking the more affluent homes closer to the ocean. Dan, despite where he lives, has somehow managed to get Julie into the seaside area’s prestigious school, where she plays violin in the orchestra.
Lynda Gravatt, Lucas Papaelias, Ella Kennedy Davis. Photo: Joan Marcus.
As Julie and her classmate/incipient boyfriend, Zander (Ian Saint-Germain), hang out in her room, carrying on in typically awkward adolescent ways, we discover that their school has recently been the target of a mass shooting, and that their friend, a wealthy girl named Noelle, was one of the victims. Earlier in the day, a nationally publicized memorial ceremony was held, with the vice-president (Zander jokes about his bad breath) attending.
Lucas Papaelias, Cassie Beck. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Dan, a caring, single dad, whose wife’s death is barely touched on, is a nice guy who delivers Cloris’s paper and always stops to tell her a joke (from his cellphone). He also helps Noelle’s grieving mother, Lisa (Cassie Beck), store the boxes of fundraising popcorn Noelle sold, despite his obvious lack of space. She reciprocates by inviting him and Julie over to her fancy house for a barbecue, an idea Julie finds “creepy.”
Ian Saint-Germain, Ella Kennedy Davis. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The walls in the building are so thin, we’re asked to believe that the tenants in one apartment can listen to what’s happening or being said in another, which is partly why Julie, using the fire escape outside her bedroom window, eventually begins to enter Cloris’s apartment.
Ella Kennedy Davis, Lucas Papaelias. Photo: Joan Marcus.
There she befriends the old lady despite the latter’s avowed dislike of kids and insistence that her place is a “kid-free zone.” In one of several feeble grasps for laughs, Ferrentino has Julie confuse Cloris’s name with a certain brand of bleach.
Ella Kennedy Davis, Lucas Papaelias. Photo: Joan Marcus.
This clichéd relationship between the uptight child and the cranky but inherently maternal senior becomes even harder to accept when Cloris, having no instrument (she sold hers for a dishwasher), teaches Julie to play the cello by miming the movements.
Ella Kennedy Davis, Lynda Gravatt. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The big crisis comes in a thoroughly implausible scene after Lisa—preoccupied with guaranteeing the school’s safety—discovers that Julie doesn’t belong there and that Dan must send her elsewhere. “Heads up” or not, such decisions are not delivered by one parent to another at their home.
Lucas Papaelias, Ian Saint-Germain, Ella Kennedy Davis, Cassie Beck. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Just as hard to buy is Julie’s anger at learning that the massacre at her school wasn’t an isolated incident but was one of countless others. Zander reminds her of all the safety drills but we’re expected to accept that this otherwise intelligent girl had no idea of what they were for because she doesn’t watch the news.
Cassie Beck, Lucas Papaelias, Ella Kennedy Davis. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Early on, based on Julie’s insecurities (she refuses to go back to school until the problem is “fixed”), it seems the play is going to explore the effects of trauma on schoolkids exposed to gun violence.

But This Flat Earth keeps shifting subjects, like a playwright’s garage sale of disposable ideas: these include adolescent sexual stirrings, flat-chested Julie’s preoccupation with breasts, the differences between the haves and the have-nots, school zoning, the contrast between adult childishness and childish adultness, and even a discourse on the superiority of the cello to the violin.

In the penultimate scene, Julie makes two quite touching speeches in Lisa’s presence, one of them offering a hint as to This Flat Earth’s title. They appear in the play at a moment that might have brought satisfying closure to what’s come before. The playwright, however, has chosen a less propitious way to end her play.

This comes in a scene between Cloris and Julie, wafted on a cello-accompanied breeze of magic realism mixed with a sprinkling of Thornton Wilder: the old woman looks into the future and describes, with heavy irony and a dash of humor, what lies in store for Julie, Dan, the town, and the world in general. She even offers a familiar bromide about why terrible things happen.
Lynda Gravatt, Ella Kennedy Davis. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Gravátt, with her lovely combination of gravity and lightness, and the baby-faced Davis, a deeply impressive, delicately sensitive young actress in a breakout performance, carry the unnecessary scene off nicely. But it's not enough to rescue the unmemorable This Flat Earth, which even lauded director Rebecca Taichman (Indecent) can do little to inflate.


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