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From Up Here

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Julie White and Brian Hutchison.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

The opening image of From Up Here, Liz Flahive's new play at Manhattan Theatre Club, is of a woman strapped in a harness ascending some Nepalese peak, battling the wind and her own smallness against the majesty of nature. For her, the experience is as life-affirming as it is life-threatening, one challenge of many to be endured and hopefully conquered.

Even though the woman doing the climbing is at best a secondary character, named Caroline and played with free-wheeling spunk by Arija Bareikis, a more fitting opening for this overwrought but insinuating dramedy is inconceivable. Though everyone else is too ensconced in the American Midwest to approach Everest, the mountains they must climb in their own lives will force them to brave heights far more dizzying than any found in the Himalayas.

While the everyday adventures on which they're embarking are at times exhilarating, it should be noted that thin air is not in short supply. From Up Here gasps for breath too often at inconvenient times, usually when it most intends to move or entertain by turning itself over to its myriad quirks (one of whom, named Julie White, won a Tony for The Little Dog Laughed last season).

Its central story of a troubled high-school senior, Kenny Barrett (Tobias Segal), who must cope with the medical and social ramifications of a violent stunt he pulled the year before and the peccadilloes of the loving but disconnected people at home, is less than inherently captivating. Whom Kenny will take to the Big Dance, whether the other kids will ever accept him, and how he'll manage to struggle through the public apology speech he has to give are hardly earth-shattering dilemmas.

Tobias Segal
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Kenny's home life, however, is considerably more scintillating - paradoxically because it's even more mundane. His mother Grace (White) is struggling with keeping him and herself in line while she tries to sell their house. Kenny's sister, Lauren (Aya Cash), must bear the weight of her whispered-about brother while keeping up popular appearances. Grace's husband of one year, Daniel (Brian Hutchison), is a fervent homemaker intent on having a baby with Grace (she's intent on avoiding it) and despondent that neither Kenny nor Lauren likes him. The arrival of Grace's itinerant sister Caroline, demonstrating how free life can be on the open road, is exactly the inspiration most of them don't need.

Taken together, these complications and others (Jenni Barber has a pivotal role as the student advocate ostensibly there to help Kenny, but carrying a dangerous personal agenda) make this potentially hollow outing into a satisfyingly overstuffed 100 minutes. The escalating chaos of everyone's trying to maintain normality while their expectations crumble around them, whether at that school dance for Kenny or during Grace's violent confrontation with a gardener, becomes a long-burning fuel for this mostly absorbing family portrait.

But Flahive's specific words seldom land with the same concussive force of her more general ideas. Her dialogue is at once staccato and prone to overlapping, yet also derisory and vague - each person has a hundred angry thoughts waiting to be expressed. Yet during the rare times the floodgates open to let loose these torrents of resentment, there's little probing of the deeper, desperate humanity that's been held back, making even the most wrenching of revelations curiously calm affairs.

So the actors and characters who must stew rather than explode come off the best, with Hutchison marvelously understated as a frustrated father figure and Cash's carefully modulated angry exterior just the right mantle for an aggrieved adolescent. Bareikis's evocation of an untethered spirit of the land is one case where outwardly directed energy works here in a performer's favor; Segal is most believable when he subdues his outward awkwardness, while Will Rogers is too outlandishly oversized to convince as a geeky but unassuming boy with an insatiable crush on Lauren.

Straining somewhere in the middle is White. The queen of the big-city bon mot is somewhat at odds with the on-the-edge Grace, her inclination toward control uneasily matched to a woman always about ready to lose it. When she must be the overprotective mother, the pushing for cheeriness seems to emanate from the actress rather than her just-there character. But the more frayed and frizzy Grace's nerves, the more natural White seems - her recounting of her breakdown has all the makings of a tour de force except the carefully crafted words at the foundation.

Leigh Silverman's production melds kitchen-sink realism (reflected in Allen Moyer's painstakingly detailed home set) and minimalism (for school and beyond) to sparkling effect, but can't compensate a script that doesn't make the same no-holds-barred journey. The love and anguish displayed in From Up Here is so promising that you can't help but long for the emotional extravaganzas that would no doubt result from a script that treated them as more than bullet points adorning an elaborate outline.

From Up Here
Through June 8
Manhattan Theatre Club Stage I at City Center, 131 West 55th Street at NY City Center between 6th and 7th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: NY City Center

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