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As she demonstrated with her acclaimed Small Mouth Sounds, a play that featured barely any dialogue, Bess Wohl is one of our most adventuresome playwrights. She stumbles, however, with her newest effort, Make Believe, receiving its New York premiere courtesy of Second Stage Theater. The play’s first half, set in the 1980s, depicts the interactions of four siblings, ages 5-10. In an unusual move considering that children are most often portrayed by adult actors onstage, they’re played here by actual age-appropriate kids; in the second half, we’re introduced to their present-day adult counterparts. But the ambitious concept doesn’t quite pay off.
In the first part of the intermissionless drama, we watch as the children do what children tend to do — namely play games, pretend to be ghosts with the help of white sheets and occasionally heap abuse on each other. The oldest, 12-year-old Chris (Ryan Foust), is an expert in the latter, even making his 5-year-old brother Carl (Harrison Fox) pretend to be a dog. Seven-year-old Addie (Casey Hilton) plays with her doll, while 10-year-old Kate (Maren Heary) desperately cries out, “Mom? Mom?”
Mom, however, is nowhere to be found, and the children have apparently been left to fend for themselves while their father is away on a “business trip.” They’re holed up in a spacious attic, outfitted with enough toys to keep them entertained for a long time. (You could spend hours just looking at David Zinn’s wonderfully detailed, period-specific set.) Their parents’ marriage is obviously not a happy one, as evidenced by the children’s re-enactments of loud arguments and an answering machine message left by their father in which he accidentally provides evidence of his infidelity.
Actually, much of the plot is revealed via voicemail, since the kids (for convenient dramatic purposes) have been instructed not to answer the phone. A beauty shop employee calls to request payment for an appointment their mother missed, and a friend asks why she hasn’t heard from her in a while. It soon becomes clear that the mother has abandoned her children, for reasons never explained. Another mystery is how Chris is able to procure bags of groceries and even a six-pack of beer, without any apparent source of money.
The answer to that question and others are provided to some degree in the second half, when we see the siblings reunited for a funeral 30 years later. Ensconced in the same attic, which looks exactly as it did decades earlier, are the adults Kate (Samantha Mathis, Billions), Addie (Susannah Flood, ABC’s short-lived For the People), Carl (Brad Heberlee) and Chris (Kim Fischler).
The playwright (whose Grand Horizons will be opening on Broadway later this year) has a few surprises up her sleeve for this section, which vividly illustrates how the children’s past trauma has affected the rest of their lives. The high-strung Kate still pines to hear from the mother who left them when they were just children, while Addie, a television actress who appears on a show called Crime Solvers, engages in more hedonistic pursuits. Carl, a tech millionaire, unleashes his pent-up anger in a speech he had prepared for the funeral.
Unfortunately, Wohl’s stylistic experiment is more interesting in theory than execution. The play’s first section feels attenuated and proves tedious despite the sterling work by the game-for-anything child performers, while the second half falls victim to narrative gimmickry. There are also too many moments that fail to ring true, including those over-explanatory phone messages and an incident in which the children are terrified by the sound of pounding on the front door that turns out to be a red herring.
The playwright also tends to use running gags that don’t pay off, such as the adults constantly being interrupted by unseen people looking for the bathroom. The staging by Michael Greif (Dear Evan Hansen, Rent) feels over-emphatic at times, as if he didn’t fully trust the audience to make the necessary thematic connections.
That’s not to say the play is without moving interludes. Wohl’s gift for sharp dialogue is also on ample display, especially in the barbed exchanges between the two adult sisters. While all the performers do excellent work, Flood is particularly terrific as the neurotic Addie, making every comic zinger land and garnering laughs with physical shtick as well, while Heberlee is riveting in his anguished monologue.
A drama dealing with such powerful emotional themes needs to feel believable at every turn, even its more fanciful detours. Unfortunately, there are just too many times when Make Believe lives up to its title in the wrong way.
Venue: Tony Kiser Theater, New York
Cast: Kim Fischer, Susannah Flood, Ryan Foust, Harrison Fox, Maren Heary, Brad Heberlee, Casey Hilton, Samantha Mathis
Playwright: Bess Wohl
Director: Michael Greif
Set designer: David Zinn
Costume designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting designer: Ben Stanton
Music & sound designer: Bray Poor
Presented by Second Stage Theater
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