“ Hope” is the thing with feathers -/That perches in the soul -/ And sings the tune without the words -/And never stops – at all -…” Emily Dickinson
Anna (Alexa Shae Niziak), a precocious 16 year-old, is distractedly finishing her Emily Dickinson paper while face-timing with Internet friend Eric (Zachary Booth) on her laptop. They’ve never met. It’s clear he appreciates her. She likes him. “I think it’s good,” he says referring to what she’s written so far. “I think you are good.” “Oh no, I’m a bad girl,” Anna responds…”I eat pizza for breakfast…” That ‘s the way this teenager’s mind works.
Eric, it turns out, is considerably older …and wants to meet up despite living 900 miles away. Anna is flattered, but knows better and shies. He’s a stranger. The premise is familiar. We’re wary.
Alexa Shae Niziak
Mother Beth (DeAnna Lenhart), a real estate agent, is raising Anna alone. The two have a warm, respectful relationship. Because of the divorce, Beth is hesitant to marry Tim (Robert Manning Jr.), her straight arrow cop boyfriend of several years. Anna is comfortable with Tim and encourages the match. Conversation is easy, credible, and well played. Having overheard her daughter, Beth asks to whom Anna was speaking and learns about Eric. She strongly recommends her daughter cut off communication.
Eric appears at Anna’s door without notice. (It’s possible to find anyone these days.) He’s driven all the way to Amherst with a birthday gift. She’s shocked and cautious, but lets him in. The audience collectively inhales. He’s not as he represented himself. They talk from far sides of the kitchen. Eric thinks she’s “special.” Uh huh. Anna makes a counter-intuitive decision.
Playwright Scott Organ controls us like Machiavelli. Again and again he sets up situations provoking expectations of dire/violent outcome. Tension ebbs and flows never quite dissipating. As the young people grow secretly closer, Beth agrees to marry Tim. Then Anna insists they meet Eric, or Eric convinces her he should. The encounter is as awkward and accusatory as you might imagine.
Beth has been carrying a secret for 12 years which not only upsets everyone’s plans, but could potentially ruin all their lives. The revalatory confrontation is bound to catch you unawares. Things emotionally snowball.
DeAnna Lenhart and Alexa Shae Niziak
This is a play about expectation, power, responsibility, and consequences. Writing is completely credible until the very end when, in my opinion, based on character, pivotal things are left unsaid. You may disagree. Up till then, the piece offers a helluva ride. It’s topical, skillfully crafted, and well produced.
Director Seth Barrish creates a natural atmosphere with attitude as realistic as stage business. Actors are given space to listen and react. No one overdoes it. Timing enhances.
Zachary Booth’s Eric is insidiously creepy. Part of this is what we bring to him based on situation, part can be credited to the actor’s adroit underplaying.
As Tim, Robert Manning Jr. is palpably manly and dependable, which, in his capable hands, seems more recognizable than cliché.
DeAnna Lenhart (Beth) has us till her last speech when I didn’t feel what must be the character’s gut wrenching regret.
Alexa Shae Niziak (Anna) is terrific. She neither makes a false move nor exhibits a less than credible expression. Everything is honest and sympathetic. This young actress should be watched.
Set Design by Edward T. Morris is well configured and speaks of particular economic status. Kristin Isola’s Costume Design puts the women in mostly tasteless, cheap looking apparel that belies cultural savvy.
If you’re unaware of Barrow Group, take heed. I’ve seen several excellent productions from this group sequestered slightly off the Broadway grid.
Photos by Todd Cerveris
Opening: DeAnna Lenhart, Alexa Shae Niziak, Zachary Booth, Robert Manning Jr.
The Barrow Group presents The World Premiere of
the thing with feathers by Scott Organ
Directed by Seth Barrish
312 West 36th Street
Through February 10, 2018
Touch-come so close to (an object) as to be or come into contact with it
Touching-arousing strong feelings of sympathy, appreciation, or gratitude
“I was taking physics-again…for the fourth time” the solitary Kyle (Pete McElligot) begins as he packs cardboard boxes. Earth science is limiting, chemistry works only once, but physics you can take over and over and the world keeps opening. Zoe wandered into the classroom by mistake. She was not thin, wore too much makeup and an outrageous hat, but he knew.
There’s no fourth wall in much of this production. Memories are not so much related as inhabited and replayed. We experience connection that’s half deer in headlights and half gravitational imperative on his side and arms wide recognition on hers. “God, don’t science guys kiss girls?!” It has charm without being saccharine. When Kyle, almost shrugging, says, “We got married” the fact happily lands like a feather.
Zoe collects people and believes in the spirit. She shepherds Kyle into the world. Excited by science, he becomes an astronomer. “What’s real and true is so much more fantastically beautiful.” Still, he believes there’s life elsewhere in the universe and refers to Keats as “the” poet. They’re soulmates, yet wisely (here) not without incident and issues.
“One month before our 6th anniversary, Zoe went out and didn’t come back…she kissed me, thank God, and she left…(to buy whipped cream)… I let her go out alone…” “Stop that!” commands Bennie (Amadeo Fusca) the protagonist’s lifelong only friend, as he enters. We can feel Kyle’s pain and guilt. The pivotal disappearance scene is chronicled. Zoe’s sister Serena (Emily Batsford) and Bennie were arguing about something with Kyle when Zoe left. The three hardly noticed her exit. Then suddenly…
Amadeo Fusca and Emily Batsford
Spoiler alert- Zoe’s dead. Harrowing specifics are revealed over time from the police through Bennie to Kyle as the latter cuts himself off from everyone (including both families) associated with the tragedy. “I prefer to think about black holes.” The only human contact he maintains to keep himself from complete freefall is to say the least unexpected. It involves Kathleen (Katrina Lenk).
Kyle’s trajectory is vivid, sometimes gut-wrenching, and later, surprising. He can’t bear to be touched after Zoe’s disappearance-thus, the double entendre title. Engrossing re-entry (redemption) features a questionable confrontation but is otherwise plausible.
Pete McElligot and Katrina Kenk
Playwright Toni Press-Coffman infuses several difficult passages with humor (watch for the condoms) or takes us aside to illuminate earlier, lighter events. Astronomical states pepper the piece as metaphors with grace and purpose. They come trippingly off Kyle’s tongue, always in context. Relationships are layered and believable. The author manages to turn the story upside-down, closing with a shimmering, hopeful moment. Though it could be a bit shorter, the play will hold you fast. You may wince, grin, and tear up.
Director Nathaniel Shaw has done a splendid job with both staging and characterization. As he tells us about a party, Kyle picks up and discards an empty Chinese food container. The gestured description of a hat is idiosyncratic in its shape. Awkwardness affects every nerve; thrill is tangible; emptiness haunting. Bennie’s extensive use of gestures reflects his Italian upbringing. His entrances are usefully jarring as are those of Kathleen. The latter’s posture is as genuine as her reactions to Kyle, the unusual stranger. Selectively keeping characters on stage when they’re not involved is effective. Pacing, paramount in this piece, is marvelous.
Pete McElligot (Kyle) is the only actor in the production without Equity status. I find this astonishing. The nuance and depth of his performance is riveting. Emotion impacts every word, gesture and physical attitude, whether internalized or manifest. McElligot has lengthy monologues which unwind in real time as if occurring to him in front of us. He plays charming innocence as skillfully as numbing despair. Simply not knowing what to do with his hands enhances. A counter-intuitive moment of quiet tears is simply gorgeous. Confusion is palpable. As is joy.
Amadeo Fusca (Bennie) fits comfortably into the least well defined role of Kyle’s best/only friend, but a habit of putting his hands in his pockets at inappropriate moments contradicts and distracts from what the character is feeling.
Emily Batsford is a completely natural actress. She personifies Serena without fuss or pretension. Katrina Lenk (Kathleen) sympathetically fleshes out her role skirting the implicit heart of gold cliché. She and McElligot have many skillfully etched moments.
Craig Napoliello’s Set may look at first glance like corrugated boxes and debris, but holds a wealth of unwitting souvenirs and touchstones. (The penknife in a pocket is a nice touch.) Overhead LED lights beautifully signify stars. Kristin Isola’s Costume Design works subtly with three characters and wonderfully with the fourth-love the pink bra. Carl Wiemann’s Lighting Design has the evocative intricacy of an accompanying sonata. Julian Evans’ Original Music and Sound Design – from deep, visceral rumbling to music of the spheres – reaches into the subconscious, signifying the underlying presence of something inexplicable despite facts.
It may help you to know we’re in Arizona. This should be in the program.
Photos by Nikhil Saboo
Opening: Production Art
Libra Theater Company presents
Touch by Toni Press-Coffman
Directed by Nathaniel Shaw
59 East 59th Street
Through September 4, 2016