'Her Requiem': Theater Review

Courtesy of Jeremy Daniel
Fine performances aren't enough to compensate for this drama's narrative and thematic wobbliness.

Mare Winningham and Peter Friedman play the parents of a teenage girl composing a full-length requiem in Greg Pierce's play, world-premiering at Lincoln Center.

A teenage girl takes her senior year off from high school to compose a full-length requiem and nearly destroys her family in the process in Greg Pierce's puzzler of a play, being given its world premiere as part of Lincoln Center Theater's new artists program, LCT3. Unfortunately, the results are far less felicitous than with the playwright's previous effort, Slowgirl, similarly showcased by the company. While it boasts strong performances and pungent dialogue, Her Requiem fails to make much narrative or thematic sense.

The play seemingly starts off as a dysfunctional family comedy, with long-unemployed Dean (Peter Friedman) and his stoical wife Allison (Mare Winningham) amusingly bantering over such matters as how best to handle Allison's dementia-addled mother, Gram (Joyce Van Patten).

But while that matter is fairly quickly and simply resolved — would that it were always so easy — the ensuing goings-on mainly concentrate on the couple's 17-year-old daughter Caitlin (Naian Gonzalez Norvind), who has embarked on her ambitious musical quest with the help of her very friendly music teacher, Tommy (Robbie Collier Sublett).

Dean has fully embraced his daughter's project, immersing himself in the subject of requiems throughout the ages — his favorite is Faure's — and dedicating his emotional and financial resources to supporting her, including ghostwriting the blog chronicling the work's progress. His largesse even extends to offering hospitality in the couple's Vermont barn to dozens of young requiem aficionados — apparently evenly divided between goths and environmentalists, known as "tree frogs" — who have made the pilgrimage to support the budding new composer. Leading the troop of camping fans is the black eyeliner-sporting Mirtis Paima (Keilly McQuail), who, despite her self-chosen exotic name, hails from Madison, Wisconsin.

Allison is horrified by this mass intrusion, but Dean eagerly provides their guests with air mattresses, quilts and space heaters. He does have one concern, however.

"No one's shooting heroin, right?" he asks Mirtis, even as the chaos threatens to destroy his marriage. 

A major plot element involves one (unseen) interloper sleeping overnight in the frigid cold, resulting in life-threatening injuries. Another one concerns a revelation about the true nature of the relationship between Caitlin and her solicitous teacher. 

I may be woefully uninformed, but I don't seem to recall any accounts of hordes of young requiem fans traveling across the country, as if an unknown teenage composer was the Grateful Dead. Besides that absurd plot device, the playwright fumbles the ball with his characterizations. The music teacher emerges as someone far different from what he initially seemed, but not in a way that feels credible. For a long while it seems that Caitlin, who is discussed at length in the play's first half, will remain offstage as an intriguing enigma. Then, when she does finally appear, she's bland and uninteresting, and we have no idea whether she's a musical genius or just a fumbling teen with a dream.  

Director Kate Whoriskey — who previously has had far better material with which to work (Ruined, How I Learned to Drive) — is unable to lend much coherence to the emotionally scattered proceedings. Nor are the performers, although such veterans as Friedman, Winningham and Van Patten deliver their usual unimpeachable work. When, at the end, several of the characters sit down to listen to the opening moments of Caitlin's composition, it feels like the requiem should be for the play itself.

Venue: Claire Tow Theater, New York
Cast: Peter Friedman, Keilly McQuail, Naian Gonzalez Norvind, Robbie Collier Sublett, Joyce Van Patten, Mare Winningham
Playwright: Greg Pierce
Director: Kate Whoriskey
Set designer: Derek McLane
Costume designer: Jessica Pabst
Lighting designer: Amith Chandrashaker
Sound designer: Joshua Schmidt
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater