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Indian Summer

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - June 8, 2016

Joe Tippett, Owen Campbell and Elise Kibler
Photo by Joan Marcus

Young love needn't always be confined to adolescents. Each of the four characters in the Gregory S. Moss's new play at Playwrights Horizons, Indian Summer, is suffering from that affliction to some degree, and only two of them would be considered "young" for purposes of this particular definition. That young man and woman, Daniel and Izzy, have it bad, too—in part because they don't realize just how much it's infected them until it's too late to do anything about it. Which leaves a lot of fraught talk about vague things and half-realized emotions, which results in what is, however comfy, a fraught, vague, and half-realized play.

It's not for lack of potential feeling. Daniel (Owen Campbell) and Izzy (Elise Kibler) are loaded with that, and not afraid to unleash it on each other at any given opportunity. Take their first, anti-meet-cute encounter, on the Rhode Island beach where most of their romance will be conducted. (The set, a Beckettian sand mountain set against an angry blue sky, is the design of Dane Laffrey; Eric Southern did the lights.) Daniel, bored, is playing with a broken toy plastic bucket (it has no bottom) he found half buried in a dune. Izzy appears, demanding he release it (it's her little brother's favorite toy). Daniel stands his ground.

"I'm tired of all these people, people like you," Daniel spits, "walking around leaving their buckets—abandoning their buckets on the beach! If this thing was so special to you, if your brother really cared about it, then he shouldn't have left it here!"

Izzy, perplexed: "He's six!"

The conflict is actually about something slightly more significant—Izzy is a resident, upset at the "summer people" who traipse in for a few months, acting like they own the place, a category into which she immediately places Daniel. He doesn't quite fit that mold, though. He's been dropped off by his mom to spend the season with his widower grandfather while she... Well, the script's a smidgen unclear on that point. What matters is that Grandpa George (Jonathan Hadary) has a claim to the land Izzy's so willing to defend as her own, so some transference of respect occurs. And from respect comes tolerance, and from tolerance comes friendship, and from there...

Jonathan Hadary, Owen Campbell and Elise Kibler
Photo by Joan Marcus

Too bad Izzy already has a boyfriend in Jeremy (Joe Tippett), a dim but hulking 27-year-old who introduces himself to Daniel by beating him up, but who before long is bonding over (probably fake) marijuana and the shared attachment Izzy has for them. She can juggle them both for a while, but come August, which one will she choose, and what will happen to the other?

It's not overwhelmingly original, no, but it's well judged as a plot, and Moss takes each of them surprisingly seriously. An odd highlight of their conflict (and the show) is Daniel and Jeremy imagining a future wedding to Izzy; though the scene is loaded with genuine sensitivity, it's the conflicting motives underneath the dialogue that prove how much is at stake for all of them. Yet it's so natural, and so within the boundaries Moss has set (Daniel intellectualizing the fantasy, Jeremy getting too wrapped up in it for anyone's good), that it's captivating: at once comedic and tragic, but also utterly believable.

George, though, is another story. He operates largely outside the realm of realism, frequently talking to (or rather at) us for no distinct purpose, and narrating the action in ways that are distracting in their self-consciously oblique tone. (Upon discovering an incriminating piece of discarded clothing, he turns to us, obviously about to deliver yet another weighty proclamation about life and love, opens his mouth, and says, "I have nothing to add at this juncture.") Against the raw, precisely drawn emotion and committed character creation elsewhere, this just feels cheap.

Moss also strains at integrating him into the same problem stratum as the others. George grieving for his dead wife is one thing, but convincing Izzy to put on one of her dresses and describe the afterlife comes across as more creepy and desperate than endearing. It doesn't reveal the bigger picture so much as break it apart: We're not focusing on the impact of the couple's three-decade love (which has a direct correlation with the kids), but on a tangential matter that propels the play into a fully theoretical realm it doesn't know how to deal with dramatically. There are other hints of this—Daniel and Izzy projecting their relationship far into the future—but they at least touch on the hope, expectation, and uncertainty those feelings cause. It can't be poignant if we don't believe it, and Moss gives us no reason to.

These conflicting notions of what the play is, and further how we're supposed to view it (the lack of concern, on the part of Moss as well as the characters, about Daniel's drop-him-at-the-beach-for-two-months mother is jarring, too), prevent it from ever fully cohering, a problem that director Carolyn Cantor, for all the grit she's imbued in her staging, falls short of correcting. The acting, too, though honest, is on the befuddled side. Campbell and Kibler find occasional moments of heartbreaking clarity, but too much of the time are trying to lighten up what wants to be dark and shading what cries out for lightness. Hadary is completely consistent as George, although his sad clown shtick gets old quick and never plumbs the character's wrenching sense of loss deeply enough to balance it out. Tippett overplays the frat bro aspects of Jeremy, but does a nice turnaround when we can no longer see his heart.

Jeremy doesn't display it willingly, of course—no one here does. But he eventually learns that sometimes you can only get where you need to be by being who you really are. When Moss remembers that, the results can be marvelous; Daniel and Izzy's final scene together, for example, is a powerful tribute to the dying art of subtext. But as a whole, Indian Summer, like so many young romances, fails because it wants everything but is willing to compromise on nothing.

Indian Summer
Through June 26
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage, 416 West 42nd Street between 9th & 10th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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