First You're Born is a play that tends to vacillate between the enjoyable and the baffling. It's as if a British adaptation of an Afterschool Special has been filtered through an episode of Friends: there are simplistic romantic entanglements, searches for meaning, broken hearts heralding the end of life as we know it, and, of course, eventually finding solace in friends and neighbors.
Yet this play somehow manages to come together to be not only entertaining, but worthwhile. The play, which is performing through May 8 at the Playwrights Horizons Peter Jay Sharp space, is so colorful and ingratiating that it defies most attempts at anger or dismissal of its deceptively simple worldview. That, in itself, is no small accomplishment.
The play, written by Dutch playwright Line Knutzon (translated by Charlotte Barslund and Kim Dumbęk), is always straightforward in its sentiment, yet subversive in its drama. The opening scene, in which a young man and woman named Axel and Bimsy (Geoffrey Arend and Phoebe Ventouras) end a year-long relationship, seems to herald a light romantic comedy in which secrets will be exposed, partners will change, perhaps multiple times, and everything will end happily.
And while, on some level, that's exactly what happens, Knutzon is less interested in exploring the subject's "what" than its "why." That's the reason First You're Born works as well it does; you think you know the characters' types - spurned woman, man looking for freedom, identical twins searching for individual identities, man letting minor health problems control his life, flouncy roommate - but Knutzon turns them around to reveal great depth in what first appear artificial constructs.
It happens that Tearman (Bradford Louryk), Axel's roommate, is a philosopher so wrapped up in himself, he can't give his heart away to another. The man suffering from health problems, Viktor (Rob Grace), is both emotionally immature and intellectually advanced. The two twins, Lis and Pis (Alexa Scott-Flaherty and Hanna Cheek) are adventurous and enterprising, and in tune with what's going on around them. When Axel and Bimsy's breakup finally brings everyone together, it gives them a chance to discover their incompleteness and begin discovering what they need to get the most out of life.
It's a message that most people, particularly in their early or mid-20s (apparently the show's target audience), will be able to relate to on some level, though from a textual standpoint, it might be a bit off-putting. The play is written in an underdeveloped, almost child-like language that threatens to pile undue sympathy on these characters, who are all attempting to cope with a world for which they don't seem mentally equipped.
That's not much of a lesson - or a play - for 21st century America, but making it all credible is director Isaac Butler's success story. He and his actors find just enough of a trace of adults inside these children, and make them believable as adults first trying to find their way in a world that's much more complex than they originally imagined. First You're Born ends up as a sweet, cautionary tale only occasionally overburdened by a style of writing so far removed from our own that it borders on the ridiculous.
Only Grace gets caught up in this - his performance recalls more a science-fiction-movie robot gone awry rather than a man suffering from chronic migraines. Louryk provides a more graceful example of how to integrate such oddities into a character; his Tearman is gentle and tentative, yet very passionate in his pursuit of life. Cheek is extremely funny as the overly emotional Pis, and Scott-Flaherty brings an appealing sauciness to her sister. Arend and Ventouras do well enough, but their characters are mostly catalysts to set the action moving, and not very exciting on their own.
Takeshi Kata's candy-colored set, Shelley Sabel's lights, and Kay Lee's costumes nicely enhance the show's fairy-tale feeling. Though much of First You're Born seems otherworldly, in the end, its events and feelings become very real indeed, hitting surprisingly close to both the head and the heart.
First You're Born