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Before Your Very Eyes

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Before Your Very Eyes
Photo by Joan Marcus

Anyone who has children, or has spent enough time around them, has undoubtedly exclaimed, "They grow up so fast!" But in even the most astonishing of cases, it's rarely as true as it is with Before Your Very Eyes, the new show that just opened at The Public Theater. In compressing half a dozen decades of life into a mere 70 minutes of playing time, with the help of a gaggle of charismatic and adventurous young actors, the theatrical masterminds behind the evening, Gob Squad, are all but verifying this. And along the way (at least in theory), they're also suggesting some new ways to think about growing up and growing old—though how much of that point is successfully made is another matter altogether.

Gob Squad is well known in New York for its multimedia examinations of the tenuous links between live performance and real life, often with heavy video components that blur the already fragile lines even more; Kitchen (You Never Had It So Good) and Super Night Shot, were intimately tied to movies, of respectively the Andy Warhol and largely improvised varieties. So hitting the Fast Forward button on 14 kids' lives, with two "teams" of seven alternating at each performance, is not that much of a stretch. Nor, for that matter, is dropping the youngsters into a playroom barricaded behind a giant wall of one-way mirrors straddled by two towering video displays, both isolating us from and elevating us above what they're going through.

It's from this makeshift studio, where a computer monitor and a video camera are helpfully set up to film them, that the seven will explore what life means, all at the behest of the voice of an unseen woman who guides and goads them from more or less the present to their dying breaths at some indeterminate day in the distant future. Our first view of them under this specific microscope comes from recordings of them dancing in front of various scenic New York locales before they leap off the video screens and into our consciousness to provide the baseline for the transformations that are about to occur.

Each of them will progress to their early 20s, their mid 40s, and finally their 70s and 80s, prodded every step of the way by the voice asking them what they can do at each new milestone year, and in some cases, compelling them follow scripts they'd rather not. (The most elaborate of these is at a 40th birthday party, where the hostess is embarrassed by her homemade sushi, a man bores another guest with his useless wine knowledge, someone else tells a joke that bombs, and so on; another, a few minutes later, finds them participating in or gossiping about a brutal breakup.) Such events let us see not just the slam-bang evolution of things to which we're physically, morally, and legally entitled at different times, but also how, even when we're required to make our own decisions, we're never totally in control.

The performers in Team 1, which I saw, brought a tangible absurdist verve to the proceedings, both surviving the ridiculousness and calling careful attention to it. Through the help of a bit of face paint and a handful of rigorously chosen wigs and other costume pieces, Charlotte Beede, Rose Bell-McKinley, Meghan Chang, Keanu Jacobs, Simone Mindolovich, Elijah Pluchino, and Miles Sherr-Garcia adroitly theatricalized their own development, summoning some hints of the adults to come without losing all their grip on who they are now. It would be an exaggeration to say I ever got lost in their game of dress-up, but during a couple of instances, I came close.

If the human effects are undeniably good, and the performers a pleasure to watch, there's not enough of a structure to justify the effort that's gone into this. Almost a concept without an execution, Before Your Very Eyes comes to rely on clich├ęs more than it does the fresh thinking the setup portends. The idea of presenting recorded interviews with the kids from 2013 and juxtaposing that with who they are now, for example, is a good one, but having their fictionalized adult selves "interact" with them and set them straight is an eye-roller that's already been done to death in other media. (That they're trying to synchronize their line reads to the videos does not help maintain any kind of illusion.) Having them, at the apex of their regrets, lip-sync "No Je Ne Regrette Rien," is dopier still. Worse, the culmination of all this, occurring exactly when and concerning exactly what you've already been led to expect, packs little real punch.

How could it? The experiences feel all blended up and span out, as though the goal were to reduce seven distinct and probably fascinating personalities into a single, sterile group capable of making thoroughly generic points about what we all go through without taking any actual risks. Yes, the artificiality is to some degree the point; after all, a kid is as unable to conceive of what it means to be a grownup as a grownup is to accurately interpret what it means to be a kid as soon as that stage of life is past. And seeing how adults view how children view adults does bridge the generations in a weird way; the professionalism of everyone involved ensures that it at all works on some level.

But uniqueness and feeling, the foundations on which this type of show should be built, disappear once those initial dances are complete. Seeing these kids moving so frenetically, so joyously, and so freely, the energetically grooving embodiments of hopefulness in a world that rarely has much use for such things, is a splendid reinforcement for us of what being young really means, and why we need to carry that with us always. It's just not a focus of the action for long. Seeing these people we want to care about conquered by the process of living is perhaps necessary, but I'd rather see what happens to them, not composite figures shambling out of some script. They're destined to have the individuality beat out of them soon enough, Before Your Very Eyes reminds us—is 70 more minutes of individuality for them really too much to ask?

Before Your Very Eyes
Through December 29
The Public Theater's Martinson Hall, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets and current performance schedule:

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