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Rare Birds

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - March 30, 2017

Jake Glassman and George Colligan
Photo by Billy Tompkins

It's tempting to refer to Adam Szymkowicz's new play Rare Birds by another name, perhaps "Dear Evan Wills." That's because, like the hit Broadway show Dear Evan Hansen, it features a troubled high school misfit named Evan who is unable to connect well with his peers or his mother, and who spends much of his non-school time holed up in his room. Bullies, the explosive power of social media, and suicide all figure into the portrait of Evan Wills, just as they do with his more famous counterpart.

Rare Birds, a production of the Red Fern Theatre Company at the 14th Street Y Theater, is a variation on what has become a familiar theme, the very real challenges faced by teens who are ostracized or bullied by their peers, and the adults in their lives who are too caught up in their own problems to intervene more than superficially. A teacher, for example, observes Evan being assaulted by a pair of ruffians and says merely, "Boys! Class! Now!" The unspoken yet clear message is that victims and perpetrators are equally culpable, and that Evan had best look elsewhere for support.

As the play depicts Evan's day-to-day struggles, it does suffer from some clunky plot elements. But it shows real strength in its depiction of Evan, brought richly to life through Jake Glassman's compelling performance that captures the teenager in all of his complex mix of dorkiness, self-pity, anger, and romanticism. Evan is a loner who wants to disappear into the private world he inhabits as an avid birdwatcher ("In my next life," he says at one point, "I want to be a bird, if requests are allowed"). Yet at the same time, he deliberately draws attention to himself at school by wearing thoroughly uncool bird-decorated T-shirts, earning him the jeering nickname of "Bird Tits." He also attempts, in his own awkward way, to appeal to his tormentors' better natures, and tries to strike up a relationship with his locker neighbor Jenny (Joanna Fanizza), the most popular girl in school.

In these demoralizing situations, Evan elicits our sympathy. Yet he can also be quite infuriating, especially regarding the obnoxious way he treats his mother (Tracey Gilbert), a widow who is trying to cope as best she can while struggling to move forward with her own life, an effort that Evan thwarts at every turn. He is inordinately rude to her and stymies every relationship she tries to strike up with a man. She loves him, but she is floundering herself and does not know how to be there for him under these circumstances.

As long as the focus is on Evan, the play does a fine job of exploring the painful experiences of the lives of the bullied, including the psychological barriers they erect around themselves that are intended to protect but that also wall them in. Unfortunately, the other characters are less carefully developed and fall into clich├ęd and predictable patterns. Evan's hapless mom keeps urging him to act like a "normal" teenager by doing things like "sneak into the liquor cabinet, kiss girls, and smash mailboxes with baseball bats." The man she has started to date, Ralph (Robert Buckwalter), is a decent sort who tries in vain to connect with Evan; the teenager rebuffs him by outrageously claiming Ralph tried to molest him. Evan's chief tormentor, Dylan (disturbingly played by George Colligan), is saddled with a well-worn backstory to explain his own inner rage, which he expresses with the aid of his fists, a gun, and social media. And Jenny seems to be there primarily to provide the play with a last-minute life-affirming plot twist that leads to a hopeful, if contrived, ending.

The playwright has drawn praise and garnered awards for some of his previous quirkily comic works (among them, Clown Bar and Hearts Like Fists). Some of that off-the-wall humor appears here, as well, but It's good to see him tackling this psychologically rich subject matter. It is likely that Rare Birds would find a ready audience among empathetic teenagers, who would bring their own experiences to a performance of the play. And perhaps we are meant to see everything through the distorting lenses of Evan's eyes. But while director Scott Ebersold elicits excellent performances from the cast, the play itself would be much stronger if those in orbit around Evan had been more fully developed.

Rare Birds
Through April 9
The Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, near the corner of 1st Avenue
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