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Pilgrims

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Fall has come early to New York with the arrival of Jamie Carmichael's Pilgrims at the Medicine Show Theatre. The play, which runs through the end of July, has something to say about each of the seasons, and how moments in our lives reflect the natural world. But Carmichael's focus is primarily an autumnal one.

For by the end of its 75-minute running time, the rapid decline from youth to adulthood is, at least for most of the play's four characters, all but inexorable. The four college students Carmichael has created learn that growing up, like everything else, carries a heavy cost, and part of life is learning what you can pay and what you can't. And, more painfully, that every choice has consequences.

Carmichael, however, avoids garden-variety moralizing; Pilgrims never develops a sticky, maudlin sheen that might make its story about finding love, for oneself and others, harder to swallow. What he and director Geordie Broadwater have done, though, is introduce a number of theatrical ornamentations - including having the actors create rain and train sound effects, announce different sections of the play, and speak directly to the audience - that seem intended to make the play feel weightier, more important than surface appearances might suggest.

But there's nothing wrong with a straightforward story, and this one is in no need of anything to detract from - or attempt to enhance - it. Carmichael lets the play speak for itself, which it does quite well; though there are only so many ways to spin a coming-of-age yarn like this one, all of Carmichael's choices are apt: There are two people who are lost, Alvie (Rufus Tureen) and Tamara (Catherine Gowl), and two people who want to help them find themselves, the free-spirited Lauren (Emily Young) and New Age therapist Serge (Eric Murdoch), who just happen to be brother and sister. Some good intentions blossom into romance, others fizzle and lead to heartbreak.

Carmichael addresses all these subjects with an alluring simplicity that further belies the show's need for its other theatrical excesses. This is highlighted most notably by set designer Melissa Goldman, who gracefully combines adolescent disarray with hints of a greater natural order; a few representative set-pieces are gorgeously augmented with two sets of Venetian blinds painted t resemble a fall landscape bursting with gold-leafed trees.

While Broadwater doesn't capture much of the same serenity in his staging (which, if messy, is problematic only because of the strictures Carmichael imposed), Gowl certainly does. Her Tamara wears her maturity like an ill-fitting overcoat, but who is slowly coming to discover the tangible benefits of responsibility and passion. If she's the bloodiest victim of Carmichael's one writing lapse (Tamara and Serge's relationship is a bit too sketchily developed), she handles her character with poise and a bottomless well of intelligence. In looks, manner, and speaking voice, she's reminiscent of Melissa Errico, whose subdued sultriness has set any number of shows aflame; Gowl's well on her way to doing the same.

Young is thoroughly convincing as the tempting yet mysterious Lauren, whose presence or absence fuels nearly every scene in the show; Murdoch lacks some of the authority that might make spiritualist Serge a more powerful figure, but compels in his angrier or more tender moments. Tureen nails Alvie's naiveté, but never finds the conflicted, more adult aspects of the character that form much the central core of the play's action; after experiencing more than his share of love and loss, he still reads as a frightened, confused boy. If that's Carmichael's point, that some people are capable of growing up and others aren't, it needs to be made more clearly, particularly in the last third of the show, when everyone must cope with life-altering tragedy.

The characters' responses range from the helpful to the annoying, from the enraged to the avoidant. In other words, they cover the spectrum of life. So, ultimately, does Pilgrims, which finds a quietly involving and even occasionally beautiful play in the moments that force us - often violently - to grow up. But the play itself, like the characters it depicts, would be better served with even less excess baggage taken along on the journey.

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Pilgrims
Through July 29
Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Medicine Show Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street, on the 3rd Floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TheaterMania