What the FROG?! I knew going in that The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide would be surreal and disturbing, but I didn't expect something so Lynchian out of Sean Graney's mind. But that's what director Devin Brain has emphasized in this production, drawing all the color out of the room so that the stage looks like the white room from The Matrix and focusing on the stumbling attempts at adult talk so that the English becomes as alien as the thought of suicide. The problem that the show faces is to make us accept that this is a group of fourth graders, putting on their classmate's suicide note of a play. Instead, the faux awkwardness -- the deliberate affectations of shyness and disaffected mumbles of sound -- only serve to remind us that this isn't just a play within a play, but that these are adults playing at childhood.
And yet, the show is genuinely disturbing when it simply enacts the play. The dead Johnny may have only been nine years old, but he showed promise, with burgeoning lines like "I do not deserve the yellow cake of your love for me," the fetishization of a juice box, and the way in which he paints the character of Rachel (Jennifer Grace), a depressed young thing who wants to die because she is fat. Of course, the play manages to be this observant because it's actually been written by Mr. Graney, but his perspectives through the veil of childhood are fairly touching. The play's hero, "Johnny" (Joseph Binder) is especially challenging, as apt to provoke a bully one moment as he is to suddenly crouch into a ball in fear the next, which is, if you've ever seen children playing before, about as predictably unpredictable as it comes.
That's what makes Devin Brain's direction so chilling: he takes the innocence away from these children. He does it slowly, building up the adult themes first by exploring the relationships between popular girl Sally (Stacy Stoltz) and bully Mike Rice (Tim Simons), then by exaggerating the violence, so that blood is actually spilled in what would otherwise just be a scuffle. From there, the play grows to a bubble with a tragic dance between two students wearing a tortoise mask and a hare mask, both of which have been sealed shut with what turns out to be industrial strength glue (toxic). Another student comes out caked in rat poison, which is far less comic than the crude illustration on the box might lead you to believe. And our hero, as foreshadowed, grabs a floating gun out of the air and slowly bleeds ketchup all over the floor.
Delivery is everything, and The Hypocrites really have that down cold in this startling production. If their goal really is to make us see theater is a different light, then they've succeeded. But what the play lacks is any real feeling, buried as it is within a careful structure and intentionally suppressed emotion, and the show would be far better simply as an Unnamed Love-Suicide, with the Fourth Graders' introduction just cut out.