Thursday, November 05, 2009

Children at Play

Photo/Jeanette Orlić

"IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII," say the goofy Lacey and Lancelot, "don't feel nervous about starting school today!" Of course, like most sixth-graders, their energetic insistence is a dead giveaway that they do. After all, even at the James Joyce Junior High School for the Gifted and Talented, they're afraid of the daily hassles their precociousness brings. Morgan Nickelfleck Gladystone can understand: ever since her father raped her when she was five, she's been living a far more mature--and therefore picked on--life.

Of course, Jordan Seavey, whose last play with CollaborationTown was an equally dark show about children (6969), runs the same risk as Lacey and Lancelot, with all his comic insistence often belaboring a point that audiences are either already familiar with or which they simply will not get. Thankfully, by chopping his play into short scenes, Seavey is able to harness that energy. The play is woefully under-edited, with too many repetitious monologues from principles, parents, and Chernobyl babies, but it's at least cordoned those scenes off from the main thrust of the play. And while Scott Ebersold's direction tries too hard to find visual ways to justify bits that don't work--dance sequences and curtained silhouettes--he at least does so at an equally frenetic pace.

In other words, whether they're nervous or not, they've built up so much momentum, and get such over-the-top performances from the cast, that Children at Play winds up working more often than not. In fact, because the show is so raucous, Seavey is able to get away with some blatant subtlety. For instance, Lacey and Lancelot are childish versions of SNL's Spartan Cheerleaders (though Collaboration Town's co-founders Boo Killebrew and Geoffrey Decas have just as much chemistry), but Seavey is so direct with what he wants out of them, that he ends up showing us quite a lot, like the moment of mutual anticlimax when Lacey forces Lancelot to squeeze her breast, an act that thrills neither of them.

Most of what Seavey decides to focus on, ultimately, is sexuality, and he does so in an absurdly unambiguous way. We meet Morgan's brother, Martin Jr. (John Halbach), early in the first act, when he's hilariously effeminate and going by Mary. In the second act, it takes a few minutes to realize that he's actually playing a new character--Maximilian--who just happens to look exactly like Martin. (Lest you get the impression that the jokes are lowbrow, there are a few great zingers about whether or not this constitutes a narcissistic relationship.) Maximilian immediately starts coming on to Morgan, while Martin Jr. continues to flirt with Morgan's friend, Jeremy (Drew Hirschfield), and while at first Halbach runs back and forth between "scenes" to do so, by the end, it's culminated in all "three" of them basically kissing one another. Two other scenes duplicate this effect, in which characters come to a literal crossroads, each eying the person they're actually in love with.

The other theme is that of broken dreams. Early on, the children meet Morgan's father, Martin Sr. (Jay Potter), who is so adamantly unhappy with his life that he takes it out on his family with awful comedy. This is what will happen to all of these children, if they are not careful; and yet when Jeremy tries to switch his "talent" from science to art, he is told to stick it out until E. coli samples in the third year, and when Morgan confesses that despite all her genius, she'd kill to be a ballerina, she is ridiculed into becoming bulimic. Susan Louise O'Connor is well-suited for such harsh juxtapositions; she has a commanding stage presence, and yet her body seems so fragile. When Morgan confesses that when someone showed up for Halloween as her, she went out and gave a twenty-eight-year-old a blow job, it's utterly devastating, especially sandwiched between events as innocuous as "the discovery of masturbation" and a sleepover's game of Truth or Dare.

Seavey subtitles Children at Play a tragic farce, and with more tightening, it would succeed: tragedia dell'arte. The climax is utterly successful, as it's the grim insistence on comedy that reminds us that what we're watching has actually become a blatant tragedy. But the rest of the play, which is still in it the experimental flush of childhood, isn't mature enough to be much more than funny.

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