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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Meredith Forlenza and C.J. Wilson.
Photo by Gregory Costanzo.

So many competing visions of success collide in Julia Brownell's new play All-American, which has just opened at the Duke on 42nd Street as part of Lincoln Center's LCT3 program, that you might well find your own definition of it challenged. Is working at the peak of your ability life's highest goal? Fitting in with those around you? Being different from them? Doing what you love? Doing what fulfills you spiritually? What about simply surviving when the odds are against it? Brownell makes compelling cases for all these, especially through her vivid, full-bodied characters, even if she doesn't otherwise cover a lot of new ground.

The Slattery family she writes about, on the other hand, is all about going where no one has before. Dad Mike (C.J. Wilson) is a retired quarterback who's still adjusting to civilian life after 13 years in the NFL. He's dismayed by his current career on the lecture circuit, but finds hope in the 16-year-old child he believes can carry on his legacy. No, not his son, Aaron (Harry Zittel), who's little more to him than a sarcastic disappointment, but Aaron's twin sister, Katie (Meredith Forlenza). She's such a wunderkind, in fact, that the Slatterys moved from Pasadena to Palo Alto to enroll her in a prestigious private high school with a nationally visible team, where she might be best positioned for college success and an eventual second- or third-round draft pick.

Of course there are wrinkles. Mom Beth (Rebecca Creskoff) has begun a new job, as a real estate broker; they don't need the money, but she needs something to fill her days. Aaron is functionally invisible to Mike, and is beginning to rebel at the attention and love he lavishes upon Katie. The phenom has it the worst: Facing the reality that she likely has no future in the sport, Katie's seriously considering giving it up and living the "normal" life of parties, drinking, and boys that she's envied from afar for so long. When a bored Mike announces he wants to have more children, Beth retorts that she doesn't, and that disagreement sends them hurtling to the brink of divorce, it becomes obvious that these people are functionally unable to deal with—or even talk—to each other.

Yet Brownell makes that work by zooming in on the subsidiary relationships that comprise the whole. Because Katie and Aaron are so close, for example, they're able to put up a united front on some issues that gives them an odd amount of power over their parents. On others, Katie and Aaron divide, her with Dad and him with Mom; when the kids are absent, Mike and Beth are able to relate to each other on some levels that they can't in ordinary situations. Aaron, meanwhile, meets a kindred spirit in Natasha (Sarah Steele), an ostracized student with a checkered past who understands what it's like to be adrift in silent mediocrity.

The interplay between them—and Jake Myers (Brock Harris), a running back with ties to both Katie and Natasha—establishes a cozy texture for the story, which is surprisingly rote. Nothing unexpected happens and the timing of the predictable ignition events, such as Mike getting fired, Katie plotting to get her way, and Aaron and Natasha building their relationship on a foundation of distrust, is disturbingly sitcom-precise. It's only the specifics of Brownell's dialogue that keeps you on your toes; every person has such a well-defined attitude and voice that the overlap between their desires and demands approaches a symphonic scale that blurs the harshly familiar surroundings.

Wilson and Zittel are particular standouts at energizing their characters, the former through a lackadaisical callousness that show's he's never had to ask (or beg) for anything and the latter with a firm grip on Aaron's lubricated lip and the whip-cracking quips that demonstrate how little he cares about everything and everyone around him. But each of the actors is impeccable at weaving together the laughs and the pathos that define the Slatterys' deceptively complicated existence.

Director Evan Cabnet deserves some credit as well for orchestrating a fast-moving production that highlights the urgency of the characters' actions and metes out the darkest tensions only at the most devastating times. The design is on the money, too: Lee Savage's set is a perfectly appointed gridiron, with two-toned grass and audience seating on two sides, and Japhy Weideman has augmented it with appropriately harsh stadium lighting. The characters grappling and checking in this environment couldn't be more right, and it drives home the dangerous extent to which football has insinuated itself into all their lives.

The game is just a symbol for any obsession, and Brownell's entry point into a critical examination of the American dream: whether it's worth ruining anyone's life, and what it is in the first place, and these questions give All-American its dramatic heft. The play stumbles in its last third, when this broader theme is suppressed in favor of the Slatterys' self-inflicted soap opera. Still, they're a winning group to be around, even if they'll probably struggle until their dying days to figure out how to "make it" in the lives that matter most to them. Maybe none of them will ever completely succeed, but while All-American maintains its sweeping focus it certainly does.

Through November 19
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
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