'This Flat Earth': Theater Review

This Flat Earth - Production Still 1 -Ella Kennedy Davis & Lucas Papaelias- Publicity-H 2018
Courtesy of Joan Marcus
Disappointingly inert.

A 13-year-old girl struggles to recover from the emotional effects of a school shooting in this timely new drama by playwright Lindsey Ferrentino, author of 'Ugly Lies the Bone' and 'Amy and the Orphans.'

The more serious the subject matter, the greater the responsibility for the playwright, which perhaps explains why there have been so many mediocre dramas about the Holocaust, for instance. Lindsey Ferrentino falls victim to that responsibility with her latest effort, about the aftermath of a school shooting, world-premiering at Playwrights Horizons. Despite noble intentions and sensitivity, This Flat Earth proves an awkwardly written and thoroughly unconvincing drama that squanders the sadly ongoing timeliness of its tragic subject matter.

The play revolves around 13-year-old best friends Julie (Ella Kennedy Davis) and Zander (Ian Saint-Germain), survivors of such an event that recently occurred at their New England middle school. Julie, who lives with her single father Dan (Lucas Papaelias), has understandably been traumatized by the experience, terrified by every unexpected sound including the classical music recordings played by her elderly upstairs neighbor (Lynda Gravatt). As the play begins, her anxieties are stirred once more by the unexpected arrival of Lisa (Cassie Beck), the grieving mother of one of the students killed in the shooting.

The play uneasily attempts to infuse lighthearted humor into its serious themes, such as Julie and Zander's fumbling stabs at romance and the crotchety demeanor of the neighbor who's declared her apartment a "kids-free zone." She doesn't take kindly to Julie's habit of walking up the fire escape and appearing at her window. It's also revealed that Dan is a former comedian who, upon his daughter's request, reprises his physical shtick pretending to descend in an escalator and elevator.

Class themes are thrown into the mix as well, with a distinct contrast made between the upscale Lisa, whose palatial house, we learn, features a wine cellar, and Dan, who struggles to make a living as a blue-collar worker. Dan and Julie live in a rundown walk-up apartment, and he once bought used clothes for her that Lisa had donated to Goodwill.

For long stretches, This Flat Earth meanders aimlessly in search of something resembling a plot. That would matter less if the dialogue were more incisive, but much of it beggars belief, such as when Julie is shocked to learn that there have been other school shootings besides the one she experienced. "Why don't the grown-ups just fix it?" she plaintively asks her father.

The playwright attempts to whip up some conflict with a climactic revelation involving Dan's having faked their address in order to get Julie into a better school, ironically the one where the shooting occurred. But the ramification of that deception, as engineered by one of the characters, feels patently false.

The evening is a particular disappoint considering the pedigree of the creators. Ferrentino, a prominent up-and-coming playwright, has garnered much acclaim for such previous efforts as Ugly Lies the Bone and Amy and the Orphans (the latter currently nearing the end of its premiere off-Broadway run). Director Rebecca Taichman won a Tony Award last season for her superb staging of Paula Vogel's Indecent, but you'd never discern her talent from her pedestrian work here.

The production, which unnecessarily features a live cellist (Christine H. Kim) performing the Bach music supposedly emanating from the neighbor's stereo, has been staged on an awkward two-level set that will likely result in neck strain for audience members sitting in the first few rows.

The performances prove equally unmemorable, with the exception of the always reliable Gravatt, who mines her character's comic irascibility for all it's worth. The distinguished stage veteran also provides the evening's most moving moment with her beautifully understated delivery of a lengthy climactic monologue in which her character omnisciently informs Julie about what the future holds for her. Although everything described has yet to happen, it somehow comes across as the most believable passage in the play.

Venue: Playwrights Horizons, New York
Cast: Cassie Beck, Ella Kennedy Davis, Lynda Gravatt, Lucas Papaelias, Ian Saint-Germain
Playwright: Lindsey Ferrentino
Director: Rebecca Taichman
Set designer: Dane Laffrey
Costume designer: Paloma Young
Lighting designer: Christopher Akerlind
Sound designer: Mikhail Fiksel
Presented by Playwrights Horizons