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A CurtainUp Review
By Deborah Blumenthal

Aren't they dangerous?—Randolph
Anything worthwhile is dangerous—Mitchell
What does that mean?—Randolph
Anything that matters can hurt you. —Mitchell

Nadia Bowers and Quincy Dunn-Baker.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
It seems like the perfect summer play: small town romance, nature, second chances. But what's really going on in Lila Rose Kaplan's Wildflower pulses with a much deeper intensity than its premise initially lets on. It's the kind of plot so unexpected, so affecting, and so daring that you want to tell it all to express how impressive it is, but can't because you'll spoil the experience. It is, in other words, exactly the kind of play that makes Second Stage one of the city's most dependable outlets for unique, provocative new plays.

This the second production in Second Stage's annual Uptown series, devoted to providing a home for the work of emerging writers. Telling a compact, tightly woven story with a quirky but well-reigned sense of humor, Kaplan's play is an ideal choice, and one of the series' recent best.

Erica (Nadia Bowers), recently separated from her husband, has taken her sixteen-year-old son Randolph (rather against his will) to secluded Crested Butte, Colorado for a summer vacation. Randolph, taking after his father, is an aspiring botanist; he is remarkably bright, but often fumbles with social interaction, ridden with an undefined Aspergers-like affliction. He meets alluring and intelligent Astor also sixteen. The curious, free-spirited and somewhat precocious Astor and Randolph are an unlikely pair — he, easily intimidated, talks to plants, she is on a quest to lose her virginity before departing for college (she skipped two grades) — but they form a bond over their shared misfit status.

The obvious comparison might be to Spring Awakening with sexual discovery, purple summer and all that (wildflowers are the pride of Crested Butte, but floral and nature-centric imagery are both pervasive throughout the play). But the difference — and what makes Wildflower work — is that in place of angsty melodrama, these characters speak their feelings. They talk through them and sort them out, even if their sorting is sometimes backwards Most importantly, they ask the questions we've probably all had, but might have been afraid to ask.

One of Kaplan's strengths is her ability to handle the difficult task of writing solid teenage characters. In Randolph and Astor (beautifully brought to life by Jake O'Connor and Renée Felice Smith) she has crafted two young people who realistically straddle the complicated line of teenhood. They are both, in their own ways, steeped in their self-proclaimed maturity, and yet really still just children.

Kaplan gives their story precedence over the simpler, jaded-adult romance between Erica, who has taken a job in Astor's grandmother's general store, and a local forest ranger, James. What Randolph and Astor lack in time-earned experience, they try to make up for with their respective collections of empirical knowledge. They seek, as teenagers are so well-taught to do, to apply the information they've accumulated to things that cannot so easily be taught. Taken with Astor's insistence, Randolph approaches her propositions as a scientist: he tries to research and concretely compartmentalize and inquisitively probes Mitchell (Ron Cephas Jones), the local inn owner. In trying to be methodical and prepared despite unsatisfactory answers ("You kiss someone when. . . words don't work"), he learns at the play's heartbreaking end that not all can be approached so systematically.

It would be a disservice to the play to be any more specific about the plot, particularly the end as it would spoil an immensely moving, chilling twist. Just when you might think the action is about to turn into one huge cliché it takes a truly shocking, haunting turn. Director Giovanna Sardelli handles the entire play with a gentle sincerity. The simple suddenness of the final moment leaves much to the audience. It is unsettling, but highly effective. The final scene's intensity seamlessly turns, the change gradually revealed, a testament not only to the director's care, but to the playwright's dexterity which glimmers throughout its seventy-five minutes. If Wildflower indicates what is to come, Second Stage has brought to our attention a young writer we should be sure to watch.

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Wildflower by Lila Rose Kaplan
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli
Cast: Nadia Bowers (Erica), Quincy Dunn-Baker (James), Ron Cephas Jones (Mitchell), Jake O'Connor (Randolph), Renée Felice Smith (Astor)
Sets: Steve C. Kemp
Costumes: Paloma Young
Sound: Jill BC Duboff
Lighting: Lap Chi Chu
Stage Manager: Lori Ann Zepp
McGinn Cazale Theatre, 2162 Broadway (at 76th Street) 4th floor, (212)-246-4422,
From 7/13/09; opening 7/27/09, closing 8/8/09.
Monday through Saturday @ 7:30 pm, Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 p.m.
Reviewed by Deborah Blumenthal based on 7/24/09 performance
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