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A CurtainUp Review
This Flat Earth

Why would I go back to school if the problem isn't fixed? Until then, why should I? — Julie
This Flat Earth
The Cast (Photo: Joan Marcus)
As if it weren't hard enough to get one play produced at a prestigious New York Theater, Lindsey Ferrentino's has two currently running: Amy and the Orphans at the Roundabout's Laura Pels Theatre, and now This Flat Earth at Playwrights Horizon.

Like Amy and the Orphans and Ugly Lies the Bone (also produced by the Roundabout and reviewed by us during its Berkshires run), This Flat Earth packs a lot into 90 minutes. It introduces us to characters whose lives touch on the problems that tend to darken our American Dream existence. (Ugly Lies the Bone focused n a returning Afghanistan vet's psychic and physical trauma while Amy and the Orphans challenged our misconceptions about Down Syndrome people like Ferrentino's own Aunt Amy).

Set as it is in a seaside Florida town struggling with the aftermath of a school shooting, This Flat Earth certainly has a torn from the headlines timeliness. But the playwright has over packed it with too many issues that don't connect as smoothly as they should.

The play is essentially the story of a community trying to get back to normal after a school shooting. What's both unique and problematic is that its central character is Julie (Ella Kennedy Davis) a 13-year-old girl. You can't help being moved by her desperate insistence that the plan to reopen the school is pointless unless it entails a never-again fix rather than just a fix-up of the classrooms to avoid reminders of the tragedy and greater safety precautions.

Structuring the story around such a young character and having her live in a poorer neighborhood than the one most of her school's students come from is interesting but problematic. Her being less priveleged than the school's primary population brings in issues of social hierarchies, adolescent envy of wealthier, more sexy, and successful classmates— in Julie's case a golden girl named Nicole is the classmate she most envies but who is one of the shooter's victims. However, instead of enhancing and enriching this fictionalized version of an event that's become all too familiar since the 1999 Columbine massacre, these added sub-plot developments tend to come off as contrived and irrelevant.

To be fair, the school shooting does over arch everything that happens. What brings the dead Nicole's mother Lisa (Cathy Beck) to Julie and her father Dan s (Lucas Papaelias) walk-up apartment is her involvement in the plans for the school's reopening. Cathy Beck manages to make Lisa both heartbreaking and unsympathetically rigid. Lucas Papaelias creates a touching portrait of a man whose own life has been full of disappointments (a failed career as a comedian, the death of a beloved wife) who does all he can to ease his daughter's path through life.

The initially friendly connection between Dan and Lisa turns sour when her volunteer work in the school's office makes her privy to the fact that Julie actually belongs in another school district. This in turn leads to a series of tense confrontations, first between her and Dan and later with Julie. Despite feeling a bit tacked on this does add to the tension permeating these three characters' lives — as well as that of Julie's supportive fellow survivor and cross between best friend and boyfrend Zander (Ian Saint-Germain).

There are two other problems with the decision to make someone so young the main character, and making that character so naive that she's totally unaware that there have been shootings at other schools. I don't know how old Ella Kennedy Davis is, but whatever her age she's too young to have developed a more seasoned actor's ability to project her voice. And so, while director Rebecca Taichman has guided her to tap in to Julie's frantic and confusing emotions, her line delivery is often too shrill to be clearly understood.

As for Julie being characterized as so naive that she thinks there's never been a shooting before the one at her school, this truly stretches credulity. In this day and age, there's no way that events like this don't become common knowledge, no matter what our age and life style. As her school enables Julie to rent a violin so she can be in the orchestra, it would most likely provide ipads or laptops to students who can't afford them. And since Dan isn't one of those anti-TV and all technology parents, why doesn't Dan Laffrey's otherwise striking two-level set (complete with a fire escape) have a TV?

Speaking of Julie's playing an instrument there's another character whose presence offsets these flaws. That's Lynda Gravatt as Cloris, the 80-year-old reclusive upstairs neighbor who was once a renowned cello player. She has some lovely moments that are accompanied by cellist Christine H. Kim who's positioned at the side of the front seats.

Best of all is Gravatt's Our Town-like monologue in response to the disillusioned Julie's "I need to know what's gonna happen to me next." Gravatt's addressing some of Julie's urgent need to know what's next but stopping short of taking her through all the phases of a normal life makes for a wonderfully moving but realistically unpredictable finale.

P.S. The play takes its title from the report about Columbus's time that Julie was working on before the school shooting — before the sense of life as safe and predictable became as laughable as those long ago people's belief that the earth was flat.

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This Flat Earth by Lindsey Ferrentino
Directed by Rebecca Taichman
Cast: Cassie Beck (Lisa), Ella Kennedy Davis (Julie), Lynda Gravatt (Cloris), Lucas Papaelias (Dan), Ian Saint-Germain (Zander)Christine R. Kim (Cellist)
Scenic design by Dane Laffrey
Costume design by Paloma Young
Lighting design by Christopher Akerlind
Sound design by Mikhail Fiksel
Stage Manager: Cole P. Donenberger
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Playwrights Horizons 416 West 42nd Street
From 3/16/18; opening 4/09/18; closing 4/29/18.
Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8PM, Saturdays at 2:30 & 8PM and Sundays at 2:30 & 7:30 PM.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 4/04/18 press preview

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