Saturday, April 19, 2008

Going Off the Rails

Theater Review - off-Broadway
From Up Here

By Liz Flahive
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Starring Julie White, Jenni Barber, Arija Bareikis, Aya Cash, Brian Hutchison, Will Rogers, Tobias Segal, Joel Van Liew

Performances from March 27 to June 8, 2008
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street

Julie White and
Brian Hutchison
(photo: Joan Marcus)
Liz Flahive’s From Up Here attempts to honestly and humorously deal with the dysfunction that lies at the heart of the modern American middle-class family. Onstage recently, the Off-Broadway musical Next to Nothing -- about bipolar disorder -- tried something similar. Both works, while refreshingly mature in ways, ultimately fail in their honorable aim.

When we are first introduced to the Barrett family, living in the “suburban Midwest,” all seems fine. Stepfather Daniel is trying to ingratiate himself with his disinterested teenage stepkids, Kenny and Lauren, while mother Grace is frazzled as she tries to get ready for work in the morning. Grace’s sister, Caroline -- a thrill-seeking adventurer who opened the play in a harness, dangling over a precipice in some far-off place -- drops in unexpectedly, and it’s obvious that Kenny prefers his free-spirited aunt to his working mother. Soon, ominous hints are dropped about something that Kenny did at school, for which he must prepare to apologize at an upcoming assembly.

The other characters are the clueless school counselor assigned to Kenny; a bookish student mentor, Kate, who helps Kenny write his apology; and Charlie, a lanky, nerdy, guitar-toting senior with a crush on tart-tongued sophomore Lauren. Flahive covers so much ground during the play's intermissionaless, 100-minute running time that she merely skims the surfaces of relationships which, if explored more deeply, would feel less sitcom-like.

We eventually discover what Kenny did at school that day -- it involved a gun, although nobody was hurt -- and this information calls into question the plausibility of the play. Would an obviously nervous, troubled senior be forced to give a humiliating public apology? Would his mother and stepfather allow him to return to the scene of the crime, or would they move him to another school? Flahive hints at other plot points in the dialogue; Grace and Daniel talk about having a baby, the family may sell their house, etc. These are far too tantalizing to be brought up and then immediately dropped.

At a school dance to which Charlie takes Lauren and Kenny takes his aunt (because he needs adult supervision at all times), there is some excruciating, Juno-like, smart-ass dialogue between Charlie and Lauren before Kenny explains to his aunt, with terrifying matter-of-factness, why he brought a gun to school that fateful morning: It was because everybody forgot his name, and he simply was fed up. Such offhand insights, when they arrive, hint at a more provocative play than Flahive has written.

In the evening’s most compelling exchange, Lauren chews out Kate for using Kenny as fodder for an article she’s writing for the local newspaper. This scene, which begins with mom innocently pouring milk for perky Kate, becomes suffused with the kind of emotional violence that can often lead to something worse.

Under Leigh Silverman, the cast does much good work. Aya Cash recalls Ellen Page’s rat-a-tat delivery in Juno but adds a whole layer of viciousness that masks Lauren's genuine hurt over her brother’s troubles. As Kenny, Tobias Segal spends almost the entire play slouched in a near-catatonic state, yet he's able to make us believe how this kid could end up planning violent acts. Only Arija Bareiks can’t quite get the hang of Caroline, who’s more of a metaphor than a real character.

Julie White’s natural exuberance militates against her probing deeply into the confused, upset Grace. When she tells her husband Daniel (pleasant but bland as portrayed by Brian Hutchison) about the minor breakdown that led to her being arrested, she sounds more like the Hollywood agent she played in The Little Dog Laughed than a loving mother who has temporarily gone off the rails. Such lapses add up to make From Up Here frustratingly uneven.

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