Thursday, August 22, 2019

59 (2019-2020): Review: MAKE BELIEVE (seen August 21, 2019)

“Yesterday, When They Were Young”

Nowadays, it’s a little unusual to see a show with challenging roles for kids actually played by children, or at least by ones closely approximating the ages of their characters. This helps make Bess Wohl’s conceptually intriguing Make Believe, at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater, quite compelling, especially since—under Michael Greif’s meticulous direction—the four child actors (despite a muffled word or two) are all so darned good.
Casey Hilton, Ryan Foust, Harrison Fox, Maren Heary. All photos: Joan Marcus.
Wohl, who has a thing for unique, theatrically clever setups (see Small Mouth Sounds, American Hero), places the four Conlee siblings—Chris (Ryan Foust), 12; Kate (Maren Heary), 10; Addie (Casey Hilton), seven; and Carl (Harrison Fox), five—in the house’s huge attic, excellently designed by David Zinn and exquisitely lit by Ben Stanton. This is their hangout, filled with dolls, a child-size table and chairs, and other playthings, including a substantial playhouse and a “fort” made of cartons and stuff.
Maren Heary, Ryan Foust.
It’s soon apparent that this is a place of refuge from their squabbling, often nasty parents, but it’s also where they create their own make-believe reality by replicating in childlike ways the troubled dynamics of their family life. Chris, who worries that his being "bad" may be why their mom left, and Kate, who fantasizes about being Grace Kelly’s child, are the insult-tossing, alcohol-guzzling parents; Addie is the put-upon baby, who treats her Cabbage Patch doll with the passive-aggressiveness she herself receives; and little Carl, who seems unable to speak, is their affectionate, barking dog.
Ryan Foust, Maren Heary, Casey Hilton.
This routine, already established when the play begins, becomes intensified when it slowly begins to appear—as per phone messages from a hair salon and a neighbor—that their mother has run off, leaving them unattended. Their father is off on one of his business trips and the kids must fend for themselves.

For all their childish innocence and tendency to live more in their imaginations than reality, these kids have a self-sufficient edge, never seeming too worried by their dilemma, and manage to fend for themselves (Chris even somehow managing to lug in sustenance from some outside source).

A series of brief episodes shows how they pass their unsupervised time together, engaging in the usual childhood cruelties and power jockeying, until, in a memorable moment, Kate, dressed in black (spot-on costumes by Emilio Sosa), lights a cigarette and coughs. Instantly, the scene shifts to the same spot 32 years later and young Kate morphs into her older self (Samantha Mathis, just right), also dressed in black and also coughing from a cigarette.
Kim Fischer, Susannah Flood, Samantha Mathis.
As in the childhood scenes, Wohl here expertly teases out her exposition until we learn why—a funeral—Kate, Carl (Brad Heberlee, effective), and Addie (Susannah Flood, richly expressive) are back in their attic playground. We discover something of the reason for their still living mother’s abandonment, what has happened to each of them, and how troubled they've become. Wohl, filling only 80, intermissionless minutes, is sparing with how much information she doles out. There are things we really would like to know more about but that she refuses to divulge.

A new character, a young man with the same name, Chris (Kim Fischer, nicely done), as his close friend, the oldest sibling, adds both dramatic tang and important information to the ensemble. Meanwhile, everyone (us included) ponders not only the ways in which the ghosts of childhood (the kids, wearing sheets, actually play at being ghosts) continue to haunt their grownup selves but just how much of those memories remain embedded in our consciousness, and how many have been submerged.
Kim Fishcher, Susannah Flood, Samantha Mathis, Brad Heberlee. 
The generally engrossing Make Believe is more concerned with its gimmicky premise, the creation of atmosphere, the revelation of character, and the sussing out of offstage events than it is about actual plotting. Essentially, the plot is little more than a group of well-off siblings being left alone to play make believe for a few days when their mom abandons them. Three decades later, having separated and become relatively successful, they reunite for a funeral and rehash their unhappy lives. Wohl’s writing is, thankfully, crisp and witty, and the beautifully realized performances make it all seem believable enough.

Perhaps the falsest note comes from Carl, no longer verbally constrained, but somewhat rude and otherwise engaged. This is conveyed when he talks to the others while conducting a Bluetooth business conversation on his phone, sometimes making it uncertain who’s being talked to. He then shifts gears, unconvincingly, to try out a speech he’s prepared for the occasion, getting so emotionally carried away that the scene resembles the eleven o’clock number in a Broadway musical. Heberlee is fine but the speech is weakly integrated into what precedes it, depriving it of organic necessity.
Samantha Mathis, Susannah Flood.
The issue of child abuse—a mother running away without insuring her children’s wellbeing—is dealt with only superficially. We may learn that the mother is still around three decades later, unforgiven, but her fate is otherwise left unresolved. Not all children will be as resourceful as the Conlees are in such situations, although the father’s return (heard, but not seen) ameliorates the situation somewhat.

Make Believe is, for the most part, thoughtful, touching, and even funny. Its premise is theatrically interesting, and it will have sentimental value for those in whom it sparks thoughts of the difference between who they were as kids and who they've become. Beyond that, its significance as drama begins to fade, suggesting it, too, will soon begin to lodge in the subconscious recesses of our brains.

Second Stage Theater/Tony Kiser Theater
305 W. 43rd St., NYC
Through September 15