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This Flat Earth

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - April 9, 2018

Full Cast on the two-level set, designed by Dane Laffrey
Photo by Joan Marcus

Plays don't come timelier than Lindsey Ferrentino's This Flat Earth, premiering at Playwrights Horizons, and sadly, this one will probably stay timely for some good while. The topic: school shootings and their effects on student survivors, a large issue being investigated by a playwright who doesn't shy from them. Her Ugly Lies the Bone studied the aftereffects of Afghanistan on a disfigured soldier; her current Amy and the Orphans is about Down syndrome. This Flat Earth displays a keen social conscience and a laudable concern for victims of legislation that thrusts guns into the hands of whoever wants them. What it doesn't do is present this issue with an entirely coherent plot or entirely consistent characters.

Consider Julie (Ella Kennedy Davis), a rambunctious 13-year-old preparing to return to her reopening junior high after nine fellow students have been gunned down. Raised by a well-meaning but struggling father, Dan (Lucas Papaelias), a failed standup comic (and when you hear his jokes, you'll know why) who settled down to an unexciting job in the water department, Julie is like a couple of adolescents stuffed into one. She's matter-of-fact about the tragedy, joking about it with her sort-of-boyfriend Zander (Ian Saint-Germain, who's funny and charming) and hoarding the left-behind possessions of a schoolmate victim, whose desolate mom, Lisa (Cassie Beck), turns up on Dan's doorstep a lot. Yet she's terrified by anything—thunder, unexpected noises, the thought of going back to school. Julie is smart, the author of a fine school essay on Columbus, which gives the play its title, which otherwise has very little to do with the goings-on. She's ambitious: She wants to be president someday. Yet she's incapable of understanding what has happened, and she's ignorant. She has no smartphone or computer, and she's stunned to learn that shootings like the one she's just endured have happened before.

Sorry, Lindsey, I'm not buying it. Even if denied a smartphone, a virtual impossibility in today's day and age, surely Julie would have channel-hopped long enough to know of other such incidents, or borrowed some friend's computer and seen something about them, or overheard fellow students talking about them. (We don't get much of a sense of how popular Julie is, but she's no wallflower. Nor do we get much feel for where she's living, evidently the downscale neighborhood of an upscale community on the New England shore.) To trigger Julie's sudden anger and panic, Ferrentino sets up this incredibly unlikely no-Internet-access premise; in a word, contrivance. Dan, trying to protect her, wants both to help her process the shootings and mute the memory of them; Papaelias nicely conveys the agonizing conflicts of a single parent in crisis mode.

They live in a small apartment, rendered by Dane Laffrey as the bottom half of a detailed set, the other half of which is the apartment above, occupied by Cloris, a former cellist incapacitated by tendonitis who likes playing Bach cello LPs; whenever Cloris plunks down the needle, Christine H. Kim, downstage right, plays a live cello, a lovely but needless extravagance. While she ultimately wraps up the plot with a long monologue implausibly telling Julie what the rest of her life will be like, Cloris is a highly incidental character, meaning poor Lynda Gravatt has to spend maybe five-sixths of her stage time knitting, reading the paper, and playing records. Indeed, director Rebecca Taichman often seems at a loss where to put her idle characters, having them wait motionlessly down a hall or linger on a fire escape. She also encourages overacting. Davis's Julie yells a lot, as maybe a troubled 13-year-old would, but her mood transitions are abrupt and artificial. Of course our hearts go out to the devastated Lisa, a mournful mom who feels her purpose in life has been cruelly removed, but Beck's is a fidgety, high-pitched performance, all nervous laughter and sudden breakdowns.

There are good scenes, notably a tense one between Lisa and Dan when she finds out he's been lying about his address to send Julie to a better school than the one in her district. Which is presented as a rather loud irony: If only Julie had attended her less prestigious local middle school, she'd have avoided all this. And there are good lines, mostly from Cloris, whom Gravatt invests with a sardonic world-weariness that feels right for this mostly extraneous character.

The main topic at hand is one the theater hasn't paid a lot of attention to yet, and ought to. Ferrentino did her homework, apparently thinking hard about Sandy Hook before writing This Flat Earth, and she gets some of Julie right: a bright, questioning young lady who's being forced to explore large issues, like the randomness of tragedy, before she's mature enough to face them with sufficient life experience. Maybe some students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas are going through that right now, and Ferrentino, however clumsily, is brave to attack such calamities head-on. As a distraught Julie rages when (unconvincingly) just discovering that these things happen, "Why don't the grownups just fix it?" Good question, kid.

This Flat Earth
Through April 29
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater, 416 West 42 Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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