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A CurtainUp Review
Make Believe

"It's a miracle anybody survives their childhood." — Addie
Make Believe
Ryan Foust as Young Chris, Maren Heary as Young Kate, and Casey Hilton as Young Addie (photo: Joan Marcus)
Parents promise children that they will always be there to take care of them.

Specifically, Chris's mom has promised him that snack will always be waiting in the kitchen when he gets home from soccer practice.

And after mom disappears, Chris, in turn, promises his three little siblings that they won't remember anything of their harrowing childhood when they grow up.

Those promises get broken in Bess Wohl's Make Believe ,now playing at Second Stage's Tony Kiser Theater. But, from the moment we heard them, we knew that betrayal would be inevitable. The more surprising letdown is the unfulfilled promise of a play that starts with a flurry of charm and ingenuity and ends with a squall of bleakly ordinary sibling squabbling.

Delivering that early charm is a shimmering quartet of young performers (all under 14, two of them under 10), kids marking time in their playroom attic while they wait, much too long, for their mom to come home. There's Ryan Foust as Chris, a self-proclaimed bad boy who tortures his brother and sisters with violence towards stuffed animals and talk of death even while he protects his family as best as a 12-year-old can. Maren Heary is Kate, who just wants to finish her homework and also to get that letter finished and mailed to her real mother, Grace Kelly. Casey Hilton's feverish Addie plants kisses all over her Cabbage Patch Doll and then tears out its stuffing. Last, there's winning Harrison Fox as 5-year-old Carl, barking like a dog all day every day at Chris'command.

This rambunctious, buoyant crew feels very much like a family, anticipating one another's reaction and alternating between aggrieved manipulation and abashed tenderness. Much of their attic play revolves around acting out scenarios as the Steak Family with Chris and Kate as the parents, Addie as "Little Miss Steak" (they can be pretty mean to each other), and Carl, of course, as the dog. Sometimes this pretending feels a little heavy-handed as Wohl (best known for Small Mouth Sounds works harder than necessary to make it obvious that the kids are dramatizing their own tumultuous home life— but the actors provide sufficient gritty, tumultuous realness of their own to pull it off. As they scamper around David Zinn's meticulously rendered attic metropolis, with its monumental fort and plastic kitchen, Michael Greif's animated staging takes off.

If this part of the play feels a little remote, a Kids Only world rendered with sociological precision, that distance seems fully intentional. We're meant to be observers, not participants, in the rhythms and reasoning of childhood: we can try to put an adult understanding or framework around what we see onstage, but it's unadulterated child's play. We can't quite construct a detailed, complete picture of a family life gone terribly wrong from the children's lonely experience alone.

Then the kids grow up.

Susannah Flood as Addie and Samantha Mathis as Kate (Photo: Joan Marcus)
In the second half of Make Believe , Wohl wholly surrenders to the play's most familiar, sordid instincts. The specificity of who these characters once were gives way to a generic story of drugs, drinking, divorce, and death. The attic is unchanged, and Kate has never broken that burgeoning cigarette habit, but the all-grown-up version of the family (Samantha Mathis, Susannah Flood, and Brad Heberlee) could pretty much be anyone. (Kim Fischer's the best of the bunch as an awkward outsider to the bickering and banter.)

Young Chris'reassurances that "this is just our childhood" and "we are not even going to remember most of this stuff when we grow up" would suggest an interest in how memory works: Do the kids'memories conflict as they age? What details have been forgotten? What moments have they rewritten for themselves over time?

Whatever complexity the first half of the play seems to promise deflates as soon as the grown ups start talking, dialogue that digs in and around decades of archives of dysfunctional family drama. Wohl packs in a number of discomfiting twists about how life has manhandled those cute kids — the biggest surprise about the past comes across as totally contrived — but the real revelation here seems to be how boring we all become, no matter how traumatic our youth.

Even the external production seems to turn its back on the opening's intriguing objectivity: when one of the adults says or experiences something nostalgic or emotional, the lights instantly shift and entrap the figure in a moody, melodramatic spotlight.

Perhaps the hardest part about having a promise broken, by a parent or by a play, is how, once you realize you've been manipulated, you can't look back at the good times without seeing the shadow of the bitterness still to come.

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Make Believe by Bess Wohl
Directed by Michael Greif
Cast: Casey Hilton, Maren Heary, Ryan Foust, Harrison Fox, Samantha Mathis, Susannah Flood, Kim Fischer, Brad Heberlee
Set Designer: David Zinn
Costume Designer: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Designer: Ben Stanton
Composer and Sound Designer: Bray Poor
Running Time: 85 minutes, no intermission
Tony Kiser Theater, 305 West 43rd Street
From 7/30/19; opening 8/15/19; closing 9/22/19
Tuesdays at 7, Wednesdays at 2 and 7, Thursdays at 7, Fridays at 8, Saturdays at 2 and 8, and Sundays at 3
Reviewed by Dan Rubins at 8/22 performance

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