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I And You

Theatre Review by Howard Miller

Reggie D. White and Kayla Ferguson
Photo by Carol Rosegg

With Lauren Gunderson's I And You at 59E59 Theaters, you will be called upon to suspend your disbelief more than once, as a pair of teenagers work together on a presentation for their American Lit class. You will wonder at plot holes and inconsistencies, a certain "Lifetime-movie-of-the-week" quality, and even the rapidity with which the two bond over music, their hopes and dreams, and the poetry of Walt Whitman. But fear not; all will make sense in due course.

The play takes place in the attic-like bedroom of Caroline (Kayla Ferguson), a high school senior. It has a lived-in look, even more so than that of the typical teenager's room, with every inch covered with objects and images dear to her heart (the glorious clutter of it all is nicely captured by Michael Carnahan's set design). That's because Caroline pretty much does live there, confined to her home with an unspecified congenital disease that has led her to the point of needing a liver transplant. Her connection with her peers is dependent on social media and the classes she takes online.

Into this self-contained world unexpectedly bursts Anthony (Reggie D. White), a fellow classmate bearing a bag of waffle fries, a plate of cookies, and a bubbling personality that he hopes will charm Caroline into helping him rescue a slapdash presentation (due tomorrow, naturally) on Whitman's use of pronouns in his magnum opus, "Leaves of Grass." Caroline is not buying any of it, however. She doesn't recognize Anthony (remember, she's an online student), and she treats him like an invader, screams for her mother, and threatens to pummel him.

Eventually, through, Caroline does warm to Anthony. She is taken by his graciousness, his heart-felt admiration for the music of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, and his willingness to listen to her without a sign of pity for her health issues. Between their conversations, Caroline's occasional outbursts of self-protective anger, and a shared appreciation of the words of Walt Whitman, the two show the budding of a real friendship, which holds until things take a sudden and unexpected turn late in the play.

There is a lot riding on the sometimes down-to-earth, sometimes ethereal development of this relationship, where the entire logic of the play rests on its resolution. Throughout, Caroline is the more believable character, and Ms. Ferguson brings out the complicated personality of someone trying to maintain a feisty outlook while fearful of counting on a future she knows to be uncertain at best. The character of Anthony is less clearly defined, showing all of the surface features of a near-ideal, popular young man who embraces jazz, basketball, and poetry with equal fervor. Mr. White does seem like he is improvising Anthony, shaping him in accordance with Caroline's needs into the sort of person anyone would love to have as a friend.

The playwright, the actors, and the director Sean Daniels undoubtedly expect the audience members to formulate questions in their minds about the sometimes clumsy plot elements, questions that will remain unsatisfied until the very end. But if you are willing to go with the flow and embrace Whitman's expression of universal love, you will find that the end justifies the journey.

I And You
Through February 28
59E59 Theater A, 59 East 59th Street
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