By Donna Herman
Lindsey Ferrentino is a young playwright who likes to wrestle with big subjects that give meaning to the space between life and death. In today’s political climate, she sees it as her calling. Right now, she’s got two plays running Off-Broadway. Amy and the Orphans, inspired by her aunt about a woman with Downs Syndrome, is at The Laura Pels Theater. Opening at Playwrights Horizons, This Flat Earth deals with a hot-button topic on front pages across the country.
This Flat Earth takes place in a small New England seaside town where the unthinkable has happened at a local middle school. The action takes place in the working-class apartment complex where Dan (Lucas Papaelias) and his 13-year-old daughter Julie (Ella Kennedy Davis) live. Above them (on a set by Dane Laffrey that feels like a living diorama) lives an elderly widow named Cloris (Lynda Gravatt), who hovers overhead silently for most of the play, listening to cello music.
Julie and her friend Zander (Ian Saint-Germain) are both typical preadolescents. At 13-years-old they have developed a more realistic understanding of the world than when they were children. But they are barely equipped to handle the normal confusing changes in their bodies and world view, much less deal with violent and traumatic events played out before their eyes. Stuck at home while their school is closed, they are trying to find a new “normal.” Where everything doesn’t remind them of what they’ve witnessed and who they’ve lost, and they don’t feel guilty for being alive.
They are also looking for answers to the question “why?” and the promise of safety from the adults around them. But who are just as lost as they are. Dan is a struggling single parent who can just about provide food and shelter for Julie. He has finagled and wangled Julie into a better school outside their district. He manages to keep up the appearance in front of both her and the parents of her more affluent classmates that she belongs there. But the finer points of fatherhood seem to elude him. Cloris’ apartment is a kid-free zone, so she is not a source of information or comfort. And the only other adult in the play, Lisa (Cassie Beck), is the mother of Nicole, a fallen classmate, and she too is looking for answers.
While the subject matter couldn’t be timelier and worthier of exploration, This Flat Earth doesn’t live up to it’s promise. Ms. Ferrentino has a lot of good ideas that even Rebecca Taichman’s celebrated direction couldn’t coalesce into an integrated whole. Unfortunately, Julie and Zander are not fully drawn characters, they’re generic preadolescents. And if the audience can’t connect to them, the whole play becomes an intellectual exercise, not an emotional one. While the two young actors playing Julie and Zander do a fine job, they are unable to rise above the material.
On the other hand, Lynda Gravatt as Cloris takes the very few lines she has and creates a fully fleshed-out character from thin air. The only problem being, I’m not quite sure what purpose Cloris serves in the play. She turns into a mystical prophetess at the end, and while that was one of my favorite scenes, it didn’t seem to have much connection to the rest of the play.
So, the emotional center of the play becomes the character of Lisa. Luckily, Ms. Ferrentino has drawn the character of Lisa with a very fine brush, and Cassie Beck gives her magnificent life on stage. I could empathize with every beat of the heart she wore on her sleeve. Brava.
It is undeniably sad and frustrating that This Flat Earth was written before the events of February 14, 2018 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. It brings into all-too-sharp focus the fact that these occurrences aren’t just the stuff of fiction. And it makes the question 13-year-old Julie asks her father “so why don’t the grown-ups just fix it?!” and her and Zander’s attempt to step in where the adults have failed, eerily prescient.
THIS FLAT EARTH, By Lindsey Ferrentino, Directed By Rebecca Taichman
WITH: Ella Kennedy Davis (Julie); Lucas Papaelias (Dan); Ian Saint-Germain (Zander); Cassie Beck (Lisa); Lynda Gravatt (Cloris); Christine H. Kim (Cellist)
Scenic Design by Dane Laffrey; Costume Design by Paloma Young; Lighting Design by Christopher Akertind; Sound Design by Mikhail Fiskel; Music Director, Christian Frederickson; Production Stage Manager, Cole P. Bonenberger; Assistant Stage Manager, Shane Schnetzler. Presented by Playwrights Horizons, Artistic Director, Tim Sanford; Managing Director, Leslie Marcus. At Playwrights Horizons Main Stage, 416 West 42nd Street. For tickets: online via www.phnyc.org, by phone at (212) 279-4200 (Noon-8pm daily) and in person at the Ticket Central Box Office, 416 West 42nd Street (between Ninth & Tenth Avenues). Performances through April 29, 2018.