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Wildflower

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Wildflower
Nadia Bowers and Quincy Dunn-Baker.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Imagine an episode of Seinfeld set at a florist’s convention, and you’ll get a basic idea of the perfume of Wildflower, which just opened at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre as part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown series. In fact, that classic 1990s TV comedy proves an excellent model for Lila Rose Kaplan’s new play, shining as much light on the considerable amount it gets right as where it goes disastrously awry.

Seinfeld was famed for its intricate, labyrinthine plots that could weave together two, three, or even more threads around its four central characters, and create and resolve ridiculous amounts of chaos that ran the full gamut from hilarious to disquieting. (Remember the fiancée who died from licking too many bargain-basement wedding invitation envelopes?) The show knew exactly how far it could push in the time it had, whether a single episode, a two-parter, or even a whole season (as when the leads were pitching and developing a TV pilot), and never violated your investment of time or trust to deliver the goods.

For much of Wildflower, it seems as though Kaplan has heeded that show’s messages - and even borrowed its spirit. In the wake of a divorce, Erica (Nadia Bowers) has come to Crested Butte, Colorado, for the summer. She’s brought along her genius 16-year-old son, Randolph (Jake O’Connor), who lacks social niceties but has the potential to be as brilliant a botanist as his father. Erica and Randolph stay at the inn run by Mitchell (Ron Cephas Jones), a retired black drag queen, who knows everything about everyone - and everything else. Erica takes a job at the general store, working for the 16-year-old college-bound Astor (Renée Felice Smith), manning the hotline for Crested Butte’s annual Wildflower Festival. It’s not long before Erica falls for the handsome and spunky (if coarse) forest ranger, James (Quincy Dunn-Baker), who’s always around for one reason or another.

Yes, this has sitcom scribbled all over it, and Kaplan does not disappoint as she unveils each new developing plot thread. The forward Astor wants to hook up with the shy Randolph! But he needs kissing advice! But, aww, Erica is too involved with James to pay him the attention he needs. So Mitchell steps in to be the surrogate parent while Erica guilt trips! But, darn it, Mitchell has to watch himself. Which forces those two crazy kids to figure out everything on their own.

Wildflower
Jake O'Connor and Renee Felice Smith.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Predictable? Perhaps, but also sparkling under Kaplan’s rendition, which is loaded with bite-and-run dialogue that’s also weighty enough that you never feel the characters are being sacrificed for laughs. One could quibble with Cephas-Jones’s character, who's occasionally too precious even for his functionary “Earth Mother” role. But everyone is smartly, convincingly presented, and Giovanna Sardelli has imposed a buoyant consistency of tone throughout the weirdness (even infecting the sky-spanning floral panoramas of Steven C. Kemp's set), never failing to highlight the necessary underlying heart.

The cast is also a fine floral treat. Bowers is a winning picture of urban maternal sophistication transplanted into rural purgatory, with all the appropriately brittle optimism. O’Connor finds in Randolph an unwavering balance between charmingly dopey and believably inexperienced, which Smith matches with a masterful (and never overblown) portrayal of an overanxious teenage girl coping with peer pressure. Dunn-Baker and Jones may be saddled with the most one-dimensional roles, but coat them in rich spectra of comic and emotional colors (even if Jones looks far too young and vital to play the aging, disintegrating Mitchell).

Unfortunately, the play’s myriad successes become meaningless when Kaplan veers off her established course into a darker, stormier direction. Not that there’s anything wrong with that: It’s justifiable, even desirable, in certain circumstances. And as Kaplan’s goal isn’t merely to peddle escapism, but also to show the many ways love can be alternately beautiful and terrifying depending on its participants identities and histories, it’s even worthwhile for this play, which is at least as concerned with the dangers of isolation as it is the benefits of communities.

But Kaplan doesn’t just abandon comedy by the side of the road, she kicks it out the passenger-side door at 80 miles per hour. She switches so quickly and so haphazardly to Twilight Zone-style creepiness that it doesn’t feel like the natural evolution of misplaced or misdirected laughs, but a betrayal of the foundation from which they originally sprang. Her specific development even requires the audience accept certain characters as dumber and more callous than they’re portrayed in the lead-up, a reversal that violates the realistic personalities Kaplan and Sardelli create early on.

A playwright can’t effect this complete an upheaval of subject and tone in the play’s last five minutes - it must lurk under the surface throughout. And the few clues Kaplan provides to this turnaround are not sufficient to make its feel like an inevitable occurrence rather than a two-by-four to the head. Perhaps if the play were longer, Kaplan could better integrate her ultimate goals with the rest of the story; 75 minutes is barely enough time for dramatic maneuvering this complicated. But as her play stands, Kaplan’s volcanic indecision about its essential nature causes it to change from delightful to disgusting with barely a pause for breath. Seinfeld could get away with that, but it earned every dividend it received. Wildflower still has a few more dues to pay first.


Wildflower
Through August 8
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Second Stage Theatre