Review: Premiere of Bess Wohl's 'Make Believe' At Hartford Stage
The show: “Make Believe” at Hartford Stage
What makes it special?: World premiere of a play by Bess Wohl, who wrote the hit, “Small Mouth Sounds.”
What’s it about?: It is sometime in the ‘80s and we first come across four children — ages 5 to 10 (played by young actors a bit older) — playing in their home’s top floor rec room. They arrive home from school and one by one call out for the whereabouts of their mother. (The endless off-stage drones of “Mom!…Mom!…Mom!” starts the play with a typically Wohlsian touch of audacity, truth and hilarity This group wonders about their missing mother — but only briefly, until they becomes distracted and involved in their own world of play.
In the second half of the play (more like the last two-thirds) we see the children as adults as they cope with their lives and look back at their childhoods.
Wait, did you say the first part is done all by kids on stage?: Yep, that’s a feat in itself and though this quartet of kiddies have impressive talents, it calls for special skills for an audience’s engagement to be sustained. Recess is not an end in itself and Wohl hasn’t given sufficient narrative structure to keep the engagement high. Plus there’s a logic gap that still needs to be filled.
Director Jackson Gay’s has guided truthful performances from these talented young actors: Roman Malenda, Sloane Wolfe, Alexa Skye Swinton and RJ Vercellone as the youngest and whose job is primarily to look adorable — which he does,
But because of the vast space of the stage and theater — and with thin, high kid voices (especially the girls, natch) much of the dialogue is swallowed by the space. (This play is not alone in this kid actor challenge. In some scenes only dogs could make out “Matilda”s wave of little girl frequencies .)
First impressions; Intriguing concepts offered up in the play needs more work and it has potential to be a powerful and satisfying play. But it’s far from that now. But there’s interesting ideas, moments and touches that Wohl brings with humor and affect as she explores the games people play as kids and as adults, how we grow up — or not, how we raise kids, deal with crises, repress hurts, cope and play pretend.
Second impressions?: The work needs more time fixing lots of loose holes, righting inconsistancies, clarifying character, and making some of the narrative and character points credible and sharp.
And while it’s fun for a while to watch kids at play — and certainly because these real youngsters bring kid authenticity — the hints of something more serious going on is only suggestive in the first part. Now, some of the set-up game-playing has pay-offs in the second act but the narrative drive seems to come in fits and starts and your attention span could be as short as a kid’s.
But then there’s the second part: Yes, and with it a quartet of solid actors who know how to fill a stage space and hold our attention. They are Megan Byrne, Chris Ghaffari, Molly Ward and Brad Heberlee giving a deeply heartfelt monologue. It’s interesting to see the adult results of the personality traits we’ve witnessed during the first part and see how they resulted in anxieties and angst in the present. But there’s also a cloud of confusion about details of the larger narrative.
Meaning? It’s difficult to give too many details without being a spoiler. But as more information in revealed about the characters — and their parents and what happened to them as children , the more we are going back in our heads to square this with what we earlier witnessed — and it doesn't;t all fit. Instead of lighting sparks of ‘aha!’ there are thuds of ‘what?’. These often strained connections only add to the mess in the playroom, an apt metaphor for the play at this state. There are so cool toys about but the room needs to be straightened up.
The arrival of an outside member of the family is useful for exposition — and needed to clarify some things — but it also brings new complications to the plot — and not very credible ones at that.
Who will like it?: Child behaviorists.
Who won’t?: W.C. Fields.
For the kids?: More than a few naughty words, and sexual situations. So, not really. They’d be confused, bored or annoyed by the second part. But many adults would, too.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Playing pretend as coping mechanism for children and adults is compelling idea but more work needs to be done to make this new play a game changer.
The basics: The play runs through Sept. 30 at the 50 Church St. theater. The plays runs a tad under 90 minutes with no intermission. hartfordstage.org.