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Written by Bess Wohl; directed by Michael Greif
Performances through September 22, 2019
It’s the rare play that treats preteens with a real understanding. Bess Wohl’s Make Believe does just that—despite some faults, it’s a refreshing change to watch.
For the one-acter’s first half, Wohl introduces four siblings—12-year-old Chris, 10-year-old Kate, 7-year-old Addie and 5-year-old Carl—who return home from school one day, go up to the attic playroom and come to realize that their mother is not coming home. (Dad is on a business trip.) After the kids spend several days playing and getting on one another’s nerves—they don’t go to school, don’t answer the phone or the doorbell, and their only food comes in the occasional bags of groceries Chris brings home—they hear someone coming up the stairs.
Fast-forward 32 years. The next person through the playroom door is the adult Kate, dressed in black, nervously trying to find some time alone at what appears to be a post-funeral get-together. Soon Addie and Carl show up, but a different Chris is present—about half their age, he introduces himself as a co-worker (and lover) of their brother Chris.
The reason for the new Chris is soon explained, which Wohl uses to unpack the adults’ neuroses, directly caused by their childhood traumas. (Chris at one point says, with thickly-laden irony, “We are not even going to remember most of this stuff when we grow up.”) If Wohl and director Michael Greif underline the connections too obviously, Wohl’s writing is often incisive enough to look past such contrivances. Her dialogue has bite, the youngsters’ treatment of one another is grimace-inducing but truthful, and the resulting adult difficulties are plausibly presented.
That said, the play’s 80-minute length is both too much and not enough: the kids’ game-playing, running around covered in sheets as ghosts or listening to the answering machine through the floor (is the floor so paper-thin?), becomes repetitive. And the adults’ personalities are a bit too on the nose: Kate still wants to connect long-gone mommy, Addie unthinkingly fools around with new Chris in the attic playhouse and Carl—who imitated a dog at his older brother’s behest as a young boy—has now become a tech genius.
Happily, it’s for the most part smoothed over by the superlative acting, beginning with the four preteen performers (Ryan Foust, Harrison Fox, Maren Heary and Casey Hilton), all of whom are funny and ultimately touching. Equally thoughtful portrayals come from Samantha Mathis (Kate), Brad Heberlee (Carl) and Susannah Flood (Addie), who nails the emotional final moments, which culminate in an indelible adult-child embrace.
Special mention must be given to David Zinn, whose spectacularly detailed set encompasses so much childhood bric-a-brac that we could spend the entire performance rummaging through everything. Flaws notwithstanding, Make Believe makes a believable portrait of children—and the immature adults they become.
Second Stage Theater, 305 West 43rd Street, New York, NY
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