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This Beautiful Future

Theatre Review by James Wilson - September 20, 2022

Uly Schlesinger and Francesca Carpanini
Photo by Emilio Madrid
I admit I have become a cranky, curmudgeonly New Yorker. As I made my way to the Cherry Lane Theatre, where Rita Kalnejais's This Beautiful Future is currently playing, I was reminded of the many things I detest about New York City: maskless riders on the subway, motorized bicycles on the sidewalks, muffler-modified and music-blaring dirt bikes taking over the streets, and on and on and on. When I exited the Cherry Lane, shaken and holding back sobs, I found myself declaiming lines from Emily's monologue from Our Town: "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?"

This Beautiful Future defies cogent description, and it needs to be experienced to understand how the strange, disturbing, and life-affirming elements all fit perfectly together under Jack Serio's stunning direction. In brief, the play takes place in Chartres, France, at the height of World War II. Seventeen-year-old Elodie (Francesca Carpanini) is a flirtatious French girl, and sixteen-year-old Otto (Uly Schlesinger) is an awkward and starry-eyed German soldier. Having met at a lake earlier that day, the young lovers spend the night together in an abandoned farmhouse. Their budding romance brims with innocence, and they are filled with youthful idealism as they contemplate a future in which their children will speak both French and German. When Elodie suggests that life might get worse after the war, Otto soothes her by saying that he and his counterparts are taking care of everything. "I think," he says optimistically, "it gets better all the time."

There are, however, dark reminders of the war that serves as the backdrop. The house, for instance, is owned by a Jewish family who have been arrested and taken away. A short distance away a bomb has destroyed a church in the main square, and Elodie sardonically wishes that sexually predatorial Father Ambrose had been inside at the time. And, as a reminder that the pair are indeed star-crossed and come from different sides of the conflict, Otto casually mentions, "I'm in the firing squad. I shot thirty-four men today." (Ricky Reynoso's period costumes helpfully capture the historical milieu, and Stacey Derosier's brilliant lighting is deliberately and alternatingly gentle and jarring.)

The play includes two additional characters, Angelina (Angelina Fiordellisi) and Austin (Austin Pendleton), who observe the proceedings from behind a large window at the back of the stage. (Frank Oliva's set consists of a large, carpeted room with just a mattress, sink and basin. Its design also evokes a nondescript laboratory for passive eyewitnesses.) Incongruously, the two older performers periodically break into karaoke numbers, singing American standards and pop songs. (Christopher Darbassie designed the sound, which adds to the evening's unsettling disharmony.) As silent viewers, Angelina and Austin regard the naivete of the young couple with sympathetic and knowing wisdom that comes with age and experience. Occasionally, they comment on the action with platitudes about living a healthy and rewarding life.

Francesca Carpanini, Uly Schlesinger, Austin Pendleton,
and Angelina Fiordellisi

Photo by Emilio Madrid
Are Angelina and Austin supposed to be the elderly, venerable versions of Elodie and Otto? If so, why do they have different names? At some point, I stopped trying to intellectualize Kalnejais's astonishingly crafted work and let it wash over me like a big, wondrous poem.

This is not meant to minimize the ravishing theatricality of the piece. As the young couple, Carpanini and Schlesinger are profoundly affecting. They capture the longing, confusion, and the enflamed passions that come with youth, but there are also heartbreaking instances in which we see the confusion, fear, and traumatic scars that exist just below the surface. Fiordellisi and Pendleton are delightfully unshowy in their karaoke performances and as representations of the play's ideal spectators, they offer a kind and forgiving presence.

In addition to the interpolated and anachronistic songs, the production makes use of distancing (or alienation) elements associated with the theatre of Bertolt Brecht. Supertitles, direct addresses to the audience, and invited sing-alongs remind us that we are watching a play. Rather than being lulled into the fictional world, I became hyper aware of my own lost youth; I was reminded of the current atrocities occurring in Europe; and I took simultaneous comfort and gleeful pleasure in the moments of sublime and gorgeous absurdity that makes life bearable. As an added bonus, This Beautiful Future concludes with a coup de théâtre that can crack the shell of the most hardened curmudgeonly New Yorker.

This Beautiful Future
Through October 30, 2022
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: