It often seems as if The End of You, Michael D. Cohen's new play at the Lion Theatre, is drenched in pain. Its two central characters are forever besieged by things they can't (or won't) talk about, haunted by events from the past that prevent them from living happily in the present. They can't open up to themselves, let alone each other.
Joel (PJ Sosko) and Kamala (Poorna Jagannathan) have been dating for 14 months and are currently living together, but don't seem to really know each other yet. Joel wants to marry her, but she's developing cold feet; she's not yet ready to devote her life to him, but also can't explain her problems to him. Over the course of the play, the two share stories about their childhoods, and constantly try to separate factual truth from emotional fiction and cope with some very difficult events (he saw a camp counselor die before his eyes, she watched her father slowly rot away from cancer).
In charting the growth of the relationship, Cohen has attempted to avoid both traditionally soupy romanticism and pop-psych posturing. That doesn't, however, prevent his writing from being florid, and it frequently is - both Joel and kamala are so wrapped up in their own feelings and perspectives on the world and each other that their efforts to describe them in words often sound silly. Neither character ever comes across as particularly real.
Granted, some playwrights can make that work by developing a specific dramatic style that makes such speech necessary, but Cohen hasn't quite achieved that. His efforts are further hampered by the introduction of two additional characters, a boy and a girl (played by Struan Erlenborn and Jamila Velazquez) representing how Joel and Kamala might have reacted to each other had they been acquainted as children. These brief scenes use normal, conversational English, but work perfectly well with Cohen's dialogue.
It helps that Erlenborn and Velazquez are extremely charming and talented performers; they make the most of their few moments onstage, and make you wish they contributed more to the show. Sosko incorporates Cohen's more difficult dialogue fairly well into his sunny, hopeful performance, but Jagannathan seems stiff and uncomfortable onstage - we never see what Joel finds so appealing in her, and why he's willing to work so hard to win her love and trust.
It's our good fortune that the play is directed by Sarah Gurfield, a talented up-and-comer with a knack for smoothing over such rough patches and making tiny shows seem both intimate and expansive. She does everything she can to make the material work, and her engaging and colorful staging nicely compensates for Cohen's often overwritten dialogue. Jessica L. Kaplan's scenic design nicely melds the realistic and the fanciful with its bedroom and dreamy cloudscape, and Aaron J. Mason's lights help divide the two when necessary.
If only that division were clearer in Cohen's writing, which relies rather heavily on the fantastic or introspective throughout. We need to know these people better; aside from a few heavy personal revelations, Cohen only drops tantalizing hints of character: Joel counts exact numbers of minutes in lengthy periods of time, he and Kamala have a regular ritual in which they exchange small talk while watching children in a park, and so on.
But very little comes of these elements - Cohen's characters live so much inside themselves, it's difficult to involve the audience. The events of The End of You were apparently drawn from Cohen's own experiences, so there's little doubt that writing the play was, for him, very important for his self-development. While the show has a lot of promise, it's not yet quite as meaningful for us.
The End Of You