Scenic Designer Zavid Zinn’s attic playroom, replete with angled roof and completely realistic light (Ben Stanton), is a world unto itself. In the foreground of the Conlee family’s discarded history – golf clubs, a clothes rack, a fan, suitcases – stands a full-sized wood playhouse and diminutive table with chairs. Toys reflect occupants aged from 12 to 5 years old. We’re looking at a Neverland.
Chris (Ryan Foust) is domineering, mean. Furious their mom has not left his usual snack on the kitchen table after soccer practice WHERE IS SHE?! he smashes little sister Addie’s beloved Cabbage Patch baby with vehemence, intending to strike at more than the doll. Addie (a charming Casey Hilton) shrieks and grabs. No parent could show more horror.
Practical, straight-A Kate (Maren Heary) plays mommy in domestic games. Before a plastic meal, she says grace. “Protect us from everything bad that’s happening or at least try…” We hear their angry, estranged parents unconsciously quoted, yet it’s clear this domestic scenario is often repeated up here where the siblings have a modicum of control. Carl (endearing Harrison Fox), the youngest, never speaks. He therefore plays a dog in the ersatz family.
All the kids are excellent actors. Maren Heary and Ryan Foust seem preternaturally mature and subtle thespians. Neither displays any self-consciousness. Multi-layered portrayal is focused and credible. Foust’s Chris will evoke shivers.
Mom has, in fact, disappeared. (Dad is on yet another business trip.) Like the kids, we hear messages come in on a house phone no one will answer. Suzanne Conlee hasn’t shown up for appointments or answered calls. Once, they hear their furious father berating his wife’s lack of communication. There’s clearly a woman in his hotel room. Time passes. School is ignored. Calls continue to come in. Only Chris leaves and returns to the sanctuary.
Coping dynamics are compelling. What begins as play turns into survival. “It’s going to be ok,” Chris says. “We’re not even going to remember all this when we grow up.” Uh huh. We spend forty minutes with the Conlee kids. You won’t regret a single one.
Suddenly an adult, Kate (Samantha Mathis), walks through the attic door engrossed in the one of a series of anxious phone calls to someone who should, she thinks, be there. She’s turned her fine brain to gastroenterology. Addie (Susannah Flood), it turns out, is in the playhouse with a young man named Chris (a solid Kim Fischer) – not her brother. And, no, I’m not telling. She works as a television actress in the crime solving genre and directs maternal instincts towards a daughter.
Carl (Brad Herberlee) shows up late. Though he still can’t cope with talking in public, the now high powered executive is so glued to an earbud phone connection, we repeatedly think he’s addressing someone in the room when, instead, it’s an associate. (Splendidly manifest.) The three Conlees echo much of what we saw as children in both character and, with deft direction, mannerism. Symbiosis remains.
A memorial service is going on downstairs. For a time, it’s not clear whose ashes Addie carries in her overstuffed carryall or what the family will do with them. This Chris bears revelations that will explain some of what occurred in childhood, shatter them all, and provide a kind of resolution. The Conlees will endure.
Samantha Mathis’ well realized Kate is palpably wired, still trying to control things and hide vulnerability. As Addie, Susannah Flood credibly shows a confident woman immune to judgment. Frustration that erupts as she empties her sack looking for cigarettes offers an unexpectedly marvelous parentheses, as does a telling moment with daughter Emily.
Brad Heberlee’s (Carl) reading of prepared “remarks” he would’ve delivered is a marvel. Careening through a dozen emotions with veracity and power, the actor makes one hold one’s breath, yet never overplays.
Director Michael Greif offers a master class of seamlessly integrated, illuminating, small stage business. Children and adults are equally naturalistic. Physicality is specific to age and character. Timing allows for thought and response. The stage is imaginatively utilized.
Bess Wohl has written an entertaining and riveting play full of faux leads and revelations that keeps appearing with eyebrow-raising pops. Characters are whole and sympathetic. Are we, at root, who we were in childhood? How does one turn adversity into fuel? What we don’t know may hurt, but so can what’s revealed. A wise, tight, and terrific play. Beautifully produced.
Costumes by Emilio Sosa perfectly epitomize character, age, and style. Music/Sound by Bray Poor is subliminally very effective.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Kim Fischer (Chris II), Susannah Flood (Addie), Samantha Mathis (Kate), Brad Heberlee (Carl)
Second Stage Theater presents
Make Believe by Bess Wohl
Directed by Michael Greif
Tony Kiser Theater
305 West 43rd St.
Through September 22, 2019