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The Talls

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Christ Scott-Reed and Shannon Esper.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Some slices of life have more life than others. Take, for example, the climactic scene of Anna Kerrigan's new play The Talls, which just opened at the McGinn-Cazale Theatre as part of the Second Stage Theatre Uptown series.

The Clarkes, a family of, shall we say, substantial vertical enhancement, is in the midst of recovering from a tragedy. A longstanding friend of the family, Sister Connie, who teaches at the Catholic school the four adolescent Clarke children attend, was hit by a bus and rendered brain dead. In the aftermath, eldest daughter Isabelle comes to the (not unreasonable) conclusion that her mother, Anne, and Connie had at one time had a very different sort of relationship—one that has cast a silent pall over the Clarkes in general and Anne's relationship with Isabelle specifically.

The free-thinking, progressive Isabelle, a late-blooming Flower Child who just missed the most exciting protests—it's now 1970, and she's just about graduate from high school—tells her mother, without telling her, that she understands her pain and, most of all, it's okay for her to experience it. In return, Anne tells Isabelle, again without saying a word, that she appreciates the sentiment and is suffering from a pain she hopes Isabelle will never know. The two clasp hands: Anne holding on for dear life, and Isabelle bestowing that new and freer life to the woman she's only now realizing she's never truly known.

At this point, Kerrigan's gift for marshaling quiet simplicity with devastating force seems total, and her knack for carrying captivating drama without excessive dialogue or ornamental characterization refreshing. This scene is all the more impressive because it is the one and only time in The Talls that Kerrigan dares suggest any such thing.

The rest of the show, for which Carolyn Cantor has provided loose-fitting direction, more closely resembles a playwriting maximization experiment. In addition to the looming possibility of lesbianism, dad John (Peter Rini) is running for Oakland comptroller; Isabelle (Shannon Esper) is preparing for college, and much to the chagrin of Anne (Christa Scott-Reed) is afraid to give her valedictory speech; older brother Christian (Michael Oberholtzer) is a baseball whiz who might be coming up on his big professional break; younger sister Catherine (Lauren Holmes) has no self-esteem, and doesn't believe she can do anything correctly; younger brother Nicholas (Timothée Chalamet) is starting to get interested in sex, and is quite probably gay; and John's campaign manager, Russell James (Gerard Canonico), spends the night, and finds a way to liberate the underage Isabelle of both her few remaining inhibitions and her virginity.

Even leaving aside the more typical "coming of age" seasoning—Isabelle is learning to turn her back on both her parents' politics and religion, for example—that's a lot for an 80-minute play. All this does signify that the Clarke family, like the United States itself at that time, is poised for major shake-ups, and each tremor Kerrigan documents could well lead to earthquakes further down the line. But the only satisfying thread of story is the off-kilter "love" triangle between Anne, Isabelle, and Connie.

That this is the only one that reaches even a tentative resolution is not incidental. The rest are determined to convince us that the Clarkes were built of flesh and blood and not something as base as dramatic convenience. But by the time Russell and Isabelle are running around "the morning after," trying to clean off his pants the, uh, evidence that perhaps they were doing something they shouldn't have been, every development rings hollow, as though they've all been added for effect rather than to affect; and Kerrigan generally begins ignoring issues within minutes of raising them. Except for those few minutes of mother-daughter bonding, nothing feels significant; even Dane Laffrey's gloriously kitschy living room set looks like it would have more staying power.

Cantor's arid, distracted direction does not benefit or benefit from the cast; none of these actors is capable of making meals of the scraps Kerrigan has tossed them. Canonico comes the closest, finding almost the proper balance between youthful abandon and adult responsibility. But Esper conveys Isabelle as being utterly without passion, which makes her meandering between various life choices more irritating than endearing; Oberholtzer and Holmes project the basics of a tormented brother-sister pairing; and Scott-Reed and Rini succeed at sketching the boundaries of a gulf between too-thinking adults. None of these relationships has any real depth.

Oddly enough, this makes Connie the most crucial and compelling character. Though we never see her, the Clarkes provide us enough information to understand that she was the lynchpin in their rapidly unraveling lives. What will happen without her as surrogate mother to the children and Anne's lifeline in times of distress ends up being the only question you want answered. So it makes sense that, only when Anne and Isabelle address it, however obliquely, does the play satisfy. In every other way, The Talls comes up short.

The Talls
Through August 27
McGinn/Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway at West 76th Street
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