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A CurtainUp Review
From Up Here
By Elyse Sommer
A first rate director.
An elegant production by a prestigious theater company.
It's a new playwright's dream come true. Naturally, it leads to the question: Has Manhattan Theatre Club squandered this abundance of riches on Liz Flahive's From Up Here?
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Flahive's dysfunctional suburban family -- divorced mom trying to reconcile stresses of job, second marriage and hostile teen children — has all the earmarks of "too familiar." Add a situation seemingly torn from an all too large number of headlines about troubled young people resorting to disturbing acts of violence and your expectations for a great new playwright emerging on the theatrical horizon are likely to take a dip.
But hold on. While Ms. Flahive isn't likely to join the ranks of theatrical greats, she does have a refreshingly authentic voice and a knack for capturing contemporary life, especially the angst and awkwardness beneath the hard-edged singsong of adolescent interchanges.
Flahive has also braved the difficult task of investing an essentially tragic story with a strong comic flavor, and looking at this not only unacceptable but dangerous problem of violence in schools through a more than usually sympathetic and redemptive lens. The metaphor she's used to open and close the play smacks of authorial contrivance: A chirpy young woman is strapped in a climbers harness high above a distant summit. It is her message sent, per the title, to her earthbound nephew that hones in on the theme of life being all about climbing treacherous mountains and surviving. It's a bit too precious, to be sure, but it does establish a balance between the play's serious and comic mood and, like so much of it, draws us in visually and emotionally — despite unfleshed out, unlikely details and the hard to swallow upbeat finale.
It's a tribute to Julie White's ability to do serious as well comic that Grace the head of From Up Here's Midwestern suburban family comes through as more than a character in a standard issue sitcom crossed with a dysfunctional family drama. White is funny but also touchingly real and frazzled as the recently remarried working mom dealing with the trauma of having Kenny, her high school senior son, committing an act that has forced the family to cooperate with the school authorities by monitoring his every move.
Since the playwright's focus is on how the aftermath of Kenny's anti-social act affects the daily activities of his family immediately after that event and leading up to the public apology he has agreed to make, the audience is not privvy to the specifics of just what it was that Kenny did until midway through the play. However, it's fairly obvious that it involved a harmful weapon, since early on we see Kenny's knapsack searched for potentially harmful objects like sharp pencils. The fact that this seems to appease safety concerns of teachers, parents and other students sufficiently for Kenny to continue going to school, makes it equally obvious that noone was seriously hurt — except Kenny! As played with remarkable sensitivity by Tobias Segal, Kenny is one of life's walking wounded. A sensitive young man for whom the slights by less sensitive schoolmates and his mother's divorce and remarriage probably entailed more than the usually fractured self image, Kenny's sudden "fame" at a school where noone remembered his name has him literally bent over with pain and inner torment, unable and unwilling to look anyone, even his mother, in the eye.
The other characters dealing with the fallout of Kenny's disgrace further add to the play's hold on our attention: Brian Hutchison is enormously likeable as Grace's gently laid-back younger husband Daniel who wants to win her kids' love and respect and also yearns to father a child with her. Aya Cash, is excellent as Kenny's angry and protective younger sister Lauren. Will Rogers' goofy charm (something of a reprise of his role in 100 Saints You Should Know) as Lauren's persistent, guitar playing suitor adds much to the humorous aspects of the story. For a more chilling note, there's Jenni Barber as an overachieving classmate who turns out to be more hurtful than helpful to Kenny.
Except for Kenny's connecting with his mother as a result of her own crash and burn episode, the other adults contribute more to the interesting character quotient than Kenny's mental health. That includes his world-traveling, free-spirited aunt Caroline (Arija Bareikis) and a platitudinous guidance counsellor (Joel Van Liew who also does a terrific second turn as a sympathetic cop).
Director Leigh Silverman, keeps the action sandwiched between those whimsical up in the air bookend moments moving along smoothly. Designer Allen Moyer takes full advantage of the wide stage to accommodate the shift from abstract to minimally realistic, to the colorfully detailed kitchen of this trouble beset modern American family.
From Up Here is a co-production with Ars Nova where it was initially developed. It's nice to see one of our large and most successful non-profits collaborating with a much smaller organization.
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