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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 4, 2016

Jennifer Kim, Michael Stahl-David, and Ana Nogueira
Photo by Joan Marcus

Fantasy and fact collide in modern romantic-comedy terms in Engagements, the amusing but flighty play by Lucy Teitler than just opened at the McGinn/Cazale Theatre as part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown series. Each of the five twentysomethings we meet has some issue distinguishing between what is and what is not (or, perhaps more precisely, what should be), and when these personalities collide at the speed of a careening croquet ball, it's not certain whether each will find their desired happily ever after or keep living out their own unique fairy tale.

Teitler, though, is clever enough to not pounce on this concept directly. Aside from occasional asides to the audience (which eventually begin warring among themselves), she keeps everything rooted within a world that's resolutely recognizable, if not always one we're part of. Specifically: the tony Boston upper crust, through which best friends Lauren (Ana Nogueira) and Allison (Jennifer Kim) are trudging as they attend each of their many well-to-do friends' glimmering engagement parties. (Although it gets more realistic in other locales, Wilson Chin's set for these scenes is wryly rooted in green grass and skewed-perspective topiary.)

Will either of them ever be able to throw one instead? For Lauren, who cycles through men rapidly, prospects don't look good. For Allison, the outlook is slightly rosier, as she's currently attached to Mark (Michael Stahl-David), a tall, dusty-haired catch who looks so crisp and pastel-streaked, it would not be a surprise to learn he'd been born and raised inside the walls of a country club. But an off-kilter joke between Allison and Mark leads the two of them to sleep together at the party and... Well, then what?

What indeed. It's here that the delusions kick in and begin expanding, as Lauren ponders the dangerous implications of wanting her best friend's boyfriend, Mark pursues her in turn in the only (and sexy-creepy) way he knows how, all while Allison remains oblivious and continues to plan her life ahead, of which, it seems, both Lauren and Mark are destined to play key roles. And when Lauren's country cousin, Catherine (Brooke Weisman), arrives from the big city with her intelluctual lit-crit boyfriend Ryan (Omar Maskati), new matters of class, devotion, and blood temper the ostensibly two-dimensional troubles the other three are experiencing and further force everyone to explore whether any of their lives truly are as they appear to be.

Engagements is both deeper than you might expect and shallower than you might hope for. Teitler displays a genuine social conscience, but rarely preaches it directly; instead, she lets us draw our conclusions from the impact it has on the characters (and the impact they have on each other). Nothing, then, exists on just one level, and every relationship between them is intricately observed, which gives these people an added concreteness that gives the play a stronger emotional oomph than it might otherwise have.

When answers sprout to the many questions Teitler plants, however, they sound more like shrugs than they do insights. Short of providing an unlikely foil for an even more unlikely person, it's unclear what specific role the anti-capitalist Ryan is intended to play. Given her integral nature and copious stage time, Allison is oddly underwritten, and fades into the background more than she should. Though Catherine cuts a stark contrast with Lauren, she does so little in the play that her ultimate trajectory, as predicted, is a real head-scratcher. And, despite the abundance of fine detail in the writing, much of the dialogue, especially for Mark and Ryan, has a stilted, scripted quality that dispels a fair amount of the contemporary magic the play otherwise works so hard to generate.

Even so, Kimberly Senior has directed with sharpness and an ear for comedy, and the actors generally follow her lead. Nogueira has erected an intriguing hard shell around Lauren that amplifies both her cynicism and her loneliness, and makes quite a show of testing and clawing against its boundaries from the inside. She also an airtight chemistry with Kim, who gives a colorful depiction of an ebullient Allison forever (and unknowingly) at right angles to Lauren. Stahl-David is comfortable in his role of handsome game-player and Maskati is still working to smooth out the rabble-rousing Ryan; only Weisman, who too heavily plays up a one-dimensional blonde stereotype, has trouble making any part of her character seem real.

How much of any of what happens should be construed as "real" is, of course, open to debate. Perception, and the tiny shifts in it that can lead to big changes, determines a lot, and it's constantly changing for these characters; the way they dance into and out of scenes leaves you wondering if, to them, the party never stops. They discover what we all do sooner or later: that someone hated can become a lifelong love, someone implicitly trustworthy could be revealed as the biggest liar ever; and so on. The key, Teitler argues, is keeping your eyes and heart open so you're able to assess new opportunities and new information at the point of inception, before you destroy the life you've built on a previous set of assumptions. Yes, it's a time-tested message, but as told with gentle if rocky flair in Engagements, it's one worth sitting and smiling through again.

Through August 20
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at 76th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: 2econdStageTheatre

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