Monday, January 21, 2019

The Wolves and The Engagement Party: Young Talents

The cast of The Wolves. (Photo: Mark S. Howard)

Sarah DeLappe’s The Wolves is set among the members of a teenage girls’ soccer team during a series of pre-game warm-ups. The play’s off-Broadway run in New York two seasons ago was sold out, and now it’s opening all over the country to enthusiastic audiences; I caught the production at Boston’s Lyric Stage. DeLappe has a finely tuned ear for the chatter of adolescent girls – the mix of sincerity and sarcasm, the accidental humor, the push and pull of their discussion of world events, the way their parents’ values and opinions season their own but don’t bury their own tentative perceptions of the world around them, the tension between blasé worldliness and naiveté when it comes to sex. And she knows just how to use language to differentiate them, though the playbill identifies them only by their numbers, and it’s not until the last scene that we learn a couple of their names, when we finally meet one of the soccer moms. She’s the first grown-up we see. The coach, Neil, is in the stands, but he seems to be hungover all the time – at least, that’s how the girls describe him – and in any case he’s very hands-off. So what little coaching they get is from their captain, #25 (Valerie Terranova), and it’s generic; you can feel her reluctance to take on the role of an authority figure.

All of the girls make individual impressions, and some are particularly interesting. The striker (or forward), #7 (Olivia Z. Cote), is the most uncensored in her speech. We learn that she may have had an abortion, and by the end of the season an injury to her ACL has sidelined her, which confuses her as much as it exasperates her; she show up during warm-ups anyway, as if there were nowhere else for her to go. Her opposite numbers are #8 (Julia Lennon), who is the most childlike, and #2 (Chelsea Evered), who belongs to an Amnesty International youth group and knits sweaters for the underprivileged. The new girl, #46 (Lydia Barnett-Mulligan), was home-schooled by her travel-writer mother; the others think she’s never played soccer before, partly because she keeps slipping and referring to it as football, so when she turns out to be gifted enough to interest a college recruiter, they assume she’s a prodigy. Actually, she’s played all over the world, everywhere her mother’s job takes them, including countries where soccer is called football. Intense #00 (Simone Black), the goalie, gets so nervous before games that she throws up, and she doesn’t talk much until the end. #13 (Jarielle Whitney) has a sly wit and a bit of toughness; she has an older brother who deals weed. #11 (Sarah Elizabeth Bedard) seems to be the smartest, #8 the most intellectually challenged; she struggles in school, and somehow reaches the conclusion that #14 (Grace Experience) is a Mexican immigrant because her family likes to go to Mexico on vacation. (#14 is, in fact, Armenian – by culture, not by birth.) #8 also tells the other girls that #46, who lives in a yurt with her mother, that their home is in a yogurt.

Some of the dialogue is very funny, often because it’s presented in the form of pretzel logic. (Sample: “Someone died in my home.” “Who?” “I don’t know. He won’t tell me his name.” Here’s another: “I don’t get what the big deal is about self-knowledge.”) But the play isn’t really a comedy. Its tone is mixed from the beginning, so in the final scene, when the girls come together for a game, one or two showing up on the field at a time, after one of their number has died in an accident, it slides easily into tragedy. DeLappe doesn’t tell us which one is dead; we don’t know for sure until all the others have appeared. This sounds like a gimmick or a manipulation, but you don’t experience it that way.

The Lyric Stage production, directed by A. Nora Long on Shelley Barish’s simple but effective set, boasts an excellent ensemble. The only performance that didn’t work for me was that of Laura Latreille as the mother of the dead girl, who comes to the first game after the funeral in tribute to her daughter. DeLappe has given this character a long monologue that’s pitched right on the edge of hysteria; it’s tricky as hell, and I would have directed the actress to hold back emotionally as long as possible. Latreille can act, and she certainly gets points for emotional commitment, but the problem with her out-there approach is that it winds up the audience; you can feel people around you moving into gear to receive The Important Message. It’s possible that this is a flaw in the writing, but if so Long should have pushed against it rather than punch it up. Otherwise it’s a skillful little (85-minute) work.

Richard Bekins, Mia Dillon, Zach Appelman, and Beth Riesgraf in The Engagement Party. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Sarah DeLappe is only twenty-nine; Samuel Baum, who wrote The Engagement Party, currently at Hartford Stage, is forty-three, which qualifies him, too, as a young talent, especially since this is his first produced play. Up to now he’s been working on TV, as a producer and screenwriter: he created Lie to Me, an imaginative series with Tim Roth as a psychologist whose study of how people lie makes him a gifted crime solver (the show had a strong freshman season but wore down afterwards), and he co-wrote the teleplay for The Wizard of Lies, Barry Levinson’s superb 2017 TV movie about Bernie Madoff with Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer. These are impressive credits to carry into your first theatrical production, and Hartford Stage has given him a dream one, impeccably staged by the outgoing artistic director, Darko Tresnjak, with a fine cast and a marvelous set by Alexander Dodge.

The play begins as a high comedy. The setting is a split-level Park Avenue apartment where Josh (Zach Appleman) and Katherine (Beth Riesgraf), both thirty, are celebrating their engagement, though they’ve been together since they met at Harvard. She’s a pediatrician; he works at a hedge fund and can now afford a lifestyle he could only have dreamed of when he was a lower-middle-class kid in Canarsie. The guests include Katherine’s parents, Conrad (Richard Bekins), who works on Wall Street, and Gail (Mia Dillon), who has been fighting cancer; three of their Harvard pals, Alan (Teddy Bergman), who teaches philosophy at Columbia, and a couple, Haley (Anne Troup), also a doctor, and Kai (Brian Lee Huynh), who works for Josh; and Josh’s childhood friend Johnny (Brian Patrick Murphy), who’s in the army. In the opening minutes Baum makes it clear that he’s a skillful quipster, and the built-in class discrepancies, represented on the one hand by the presence of Johnny and Josh’s sensitivity about how far he’s risen in the world and on the other by Alan, who believes in a fair distribution of wealth – his engagement gift is a check to Oxfam in his friends’ names – set us up for a juicy comedy of manners.

But it’s not. Baum makes the mistake of treating the narrative, with all its hidden tensions (Haley has been struggling with addiction, Kai feels that Josh now values money more than friendship), with dead seriousness. So when Kai spills a glass of wine at the dinner table and everyone pitches in to mop up and throw a tablecloth on, and the extremely expensive diamond engagement ring Katherine has been passing around for her guests to admire suddenly goes missing, the undercurrents of suspicion and resentment that are set in motion aren’t much fun. And the more of them that Baum piles on, the less convincing they are, so the play veers straight into melodrama. If he’d played them for humor then we probably wouldn’t think as much about how unlikely it is than no one in the room falls into the class trap of suspecting Johnny, the only person in the room without pedigree imposed by birth or education or financial status. And we might not find somewhat ridiculous Josh’s jumping to the conclusion that Kai took the ring because he’s pissed at his friend for not giving him the bonus he thought he deserved – or the revelation that Kai has always thought Alan’s anti-capitalist position a pathetic compensation for not thinking he’s good enough to accomplish what his friends have. (If he were, say, a store clerk rather than a Columbia professor, this point of view might make more sense.) When the big reveal arrives, it feels like the hidden motivation for the murder in an Agatha Christie whodunit.

Dodge’s set consists of two gleaming tiers on a revolve; we get to see the dining-room and the kitchen and an upstairs landing, and close to the end we see the upstairs bedroom, where the story reaches its climax. The design is a beauty, and Tresnjak uses all that space expertly, tightening and crowding it for maximum dramatic effect. There are no bum performances, though I think the actors cast as the bluebloods (Bekins, Dillon and Riesgraf) are the standouts. Joshua Pearson has woven subtle character notes into the costume designs, and I imagine that Riesgraf is grateful to him for giving her an outfit that accentuates her elegance. As is generally the case at Hartford Stage, you feel you’re in the most professional of hands. But the play itself would have worked better as high comedy.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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