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The Thing with Feathers

Theatre Review by James Wilson - January 22, 2018

DeAnna Lenhart and Alexa Shae Niziak
Photo by Todd Cerveris

As social commentary and cultural exposé, The Thing with Feathers, Scott Organ's play receiving its world premiere by the Barrow Group, is timely and important. The drama examines issues of sex and the abuses of power, and it highlights the ways in which digital apps and social media can both empower sexual predators and force us to reckon with our pasts. And as a work of dramatic fiction, The Thing with Feathers is grippingly enjoyable. In fact, while the play explores contemporary issues, it succeeds as an old-style stage thriller and psychological melodrama that incorporates twenty-first century gadgetry and anxieties.

The Thing with Feathers centers on Anna (Alexa Shae Niziak, conveying teen enthusiasm and sullenness in equal measure), a high school student on the cusp of her seventeenth birthday. Anna has developed an online friendship with Eric (performed with ingratiating creepiness by Zachary Booth), who is presumably twenty-one and a college student. Their Internet courtship primarily focuses on the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and the two spend hours video-chatting with one another. Of course, as practically any teenager would, Anna conceals her deepening Skype relationship from her mother, Beth (in a layered performance by DeAnna Lenhart), a former English teacher and current realtor. Beth, however, is more upfront about her own romantic relationship, and she confides in Anna that she expects to receive a marriage proposal from Tim (a gently powerful Robert Manning, Jr.), the police officer she has been seeing for some time. She will probably say "no" to him. Unless she says "yes."

Anna's relationship with Eric takes an unexpected turn when he shows up on the day of her seventeenth birthday (coinciding with the state age-of-consent laws). Although he claims to have driven nine hundred miles simply to wish her a happy birthday and give her a collection of Emily Dickinson poems, his intentions seem immediately a bit more sinister. It would not be revealing too much (nor come as a surprise) to state that Eric, charming as he may be, does not exactly fit his online profile. There are a number of dramaturgical twists and turns, past histories explored, and secrets revealed on the way to the conclusion, and a good deal of the play's gratification comes from watching these unfold, so I'll keep spoilers to a minimum.

Zachary Booth
Photo by Todd Cerveris

As a thriller, The Thing with Feathers is not as dark or deliciously macabre as a Martin McDonagh play, for instance, but it certainly has its requisite suspenseful teases and edge-of-the-seat moments of apprehension. In an early scene, to cite one example, Eric is alone onstage and prowling around the living room, and Beth, not knowing of Eric's presence, is offstage in the shower. The night I saw it the audience audibly gasped when Eric pulled a frighteningly large knife out of a drawer. One could almost anticipate the jarring Psycho music until the knife's more practical purpose was revealed, and then the audience laughed in relief.

In general director Seth Barrish successfully balances the play's contemporary realism and melodramatic flourishes. The play takes some time, unfortunately, to come to a boil, and the initial few scenes lack simmering intensity, and there are few romantic sparks among the young lovers. The second act is more satisfyingly inflammatory when old scars are revealed, and unhealed wounds are reopened. A less skillful director and company of actors might have pushed the theatrical revelations over the top and underscored the expositional clues and dramaturgical coincidences (such as the convenience of having a police officer among the main characters).

The ending in which the characters reveal the significance of the titular Dickinson quotation (i.e., "‘Hope' is the thing with feathers") is disappointing. The message seems tacked on and not organic to the play. While the play raises complicated issues (and presents its own unexpected #MeToo victim) about gender, age differentials, and sexual dominance, the treacly mother-daughter scene is something of a letdown.

Edward T. Morris (scenic design) and Solomon Weisbard (lighting design) effectively capture Anna and Beth's modest middle-class household. Home, as this play warns, is not always a safe haven for family members. In an era in which we are always electronically connected, our homes are neither impervious to threats from without nor secrets from within.

The Thing with Feathers
Through February 10
The Barrow Group Mainstage Theatre, 312 West 36th Street, 3rd Floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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