The Review: This Flat Earth at Playwrights Horizons
Lindsey Ferrentino’s new play, This Flat Earth, is making its powerful premiere at Playwrights Horizons tackling a current crisis head-on in the most timely manner possible. As the #NeverAgain movement ricochets across FaceBook and Twitter, fueled by the anger of young teens who have experienced trauma in a way few of us will ever understand, this compelling new play takes aim at their situation and dives in deep. It wants to explore their disbelief that the adults of the world haven’t already taken charge of the situation but rather seem ok in letting the danger that threatens their lives on a day-to-day basis continue to exist. Ferrentino (Roundabout’s Amy and the Orphans) makes a strong case for this diatribe but unfortunately it gets weighed down by too many ideas popping up all over the place, bogging them all down under a cover of inauthenticity, hard to believe scenarios, and abstract mysticism that floats in from upstairs, but lands listlessly on the ground.
Directed with an odd overly zealous and unfocused intent by the usually intense Rebecca Taichman, who did such strong work on the magnificent PH’s Familiar and Broadway’s Indecent last season, has her work cut out for her in this multi-leveled approach to a very current problem. The set, impressively giving us a whole world to take in by designerDane Laffrey (PH’s Rancho Viejo) with lighting by Christopher Akerlind (Indecent) and costumes by Paloma Young (Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre..) flickers of real lives floating onward but sadly distracts from the central dynamic. The initial traumatic clue is mind-blowingly current, a young teenager, Julie, portrayed by the young Ella Kennedy Davis (Fancy Feet’s Peter Pan) is struggling to deal with the emotional after-effects of a school shooting. She made it out of the school unharmed but a number of her school mates, although not any of her good friends, were killed. It is now almost one month after the violence, and she’s about to return to her school. Not surprisingly, she is having difficulty feeling safe in her own home at night, hearing a threat or a alarming connection from every sound she hears at night, from thunder to the gorgeous cello music floating in from one floor above. Luckily, she is comforted by her over-whelmed father, Dan, a very good Lucas Papaelias (Broadway’s Once, Cyrano) who tries under the weight of his difficult life as a single working parent to make the monsters go away and a normality return to their home. It’s a beautifully powerful first scene, setting us up for some very emotional moments ahead. And there are, so many well constructed pieces, played out well and powerful, transfixing our attention on the trauma that this violence reaps.
So much is placed on the back of this young actress, as Davis has to carry the emotional arc on her shoulders throughout. And she does a fine job, although the play and the direction hasn’t given her or guided her through enough constructs emotionally. She does her best though, with what she is given, but the threads are tied to too many aspects and distractions from the core. There is a subplot about school residency zones, and who should or shouldn’t be going to the school. This is tied into another aspect revolving around a grieving mother, Lisa, well-played by the emotional Cassie Beck (Broadway’s The Humans) and her popcorn dilemma. There is also a mystical and cranky neighbor, Cloris, played by the always good Lynda Gravátt (Broadway’s Doubt) upstairs who imagines playing and teaching cello while philosophizing about music and Julie’s possible future. All this while beautiful cello music is being telegraphed in from the side, performed by the superb Cellist, Christine H. Kim with music direction by Christian Frederickson (CSC’s The Tempest) and sound design by Mikhail Fiksel (PH’s A Life). Wonderful, but maybe one popcorn box too many.
Julie’s current situation and her lack of knowledge about the history of high school shooting doesn’t sit believably over all the dynamics present. Kids just aren’t that oblivious, and coupled with her and her father’s unthinking attitude about residential zoning and the deception they are trying to maintain, the drama these ingredients create start to feel false and overly constructed. More care would have been taken, especially by the father in terms of inviting another parent over to their not-as-high-end apartment on the wrong side of the town, and, in the same vein, it’s doubtful that high school friend, Zander, cute and awkwardly played by Ian Saint-Germain (TFANA’s Tamburlaine) would also be allowed over and made aware of their home’s location. As the strange plot of school location requirements, cello lessons, and the popcorn problem start to pile up in the hallway, these different layers overwhelm the storyline without any hope of finding a solid bigger picture or dynamic. It gets harder and harder to structure all these competing components around a centralized topic that would make for something meaningful. Maybe more time was needed to build an overall schematic conflict that was worthy of the dynamic situation, understand the players on a deeper and more personal level, and weave in the mystical over the reality of the conflict, before trying so hard to wrap this all up in a tidy one-act intermission-less play.
“It feels like the times are calling us to produce more politically slanted work, but really, I think the times are calling the writers.” This is a quote by Artistic Director, Tim Sanford in the program notes, and I applaud that decision and idea. Ferrentino bravely dives into the arena as this is most certainly a time for writers to start addressing these topics and this moment in history, In her fervor though, she seems to have brought up a few too many boxes of ideas into the apartment that only end up cluttering the dynamic and the power. There was, I was told (although I wasn’t privy to see it at the time), a powerful piece at NYTW called Columbinus, that probed the psychological warfare of alienation, hostility, and social pressure that exists inside America’s high schools, written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, sparked by the April 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. And there should be more and more until something changes in our politics and legislature as it did in other wiser countries, like Japan and Australia. I hope these teenagers that are pushing the envelope of the #NeverAgain movement succeed in ways that adults haven’t been able to, of galvanizing a movement together that elicits change and hope for the future. I applaud Ferrentino and Playwrights Horizons in their attempt, but some more work needs to be done to make This Flat Earth feel more relevant and powerful overall, and less of a heavy burden for poor young Davis to shoulder.