REVIEW WRITTEN BY ANDERS BACK
For Digital First Media
When a playwright tries to connect teenage angst and waffle fries, Walt Whitman, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis and a generous helping of M. Night Shyamalan you know something unusual is going to happen on stage.
Aside from the very distinctive tastes and qualities of each of these elements, mixing them is tricky, and it takes a fresh eye and appreciation of adolescent life. Playwright Lauren Gunderson has both. Sharing her extensiveexcavation of the teenage brain, Gunderson has incorporated some of the flavor, words, music and concepts of these disparate elements into her national hit play “I and You,” now onstage at People’s Light in Malvern.
“I and You” hinges on a (late) Elvis-sized plot twist that no responsible reviewer would reveal, but has probably already been winkled out and spread over social media like artificial frosting. Ignore it, drag your teenage children offline and take them to see this slight but charming dramedy. Don’t tell them it’s been getting standing ovations during opening week. Just ask them what they think of it. It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. If they don’t want to go to the theater with a bunch of, uh, mature folks you can remind them what Whitman said in “Leaves of Grass:” Youth, large, lusty, loving — Youth, full of grace, force, fascination. Do you know that Old Age may come after you with equal grace, force, fascination?
Constructing two-character plays is harder than it might seem. No one is available to arrive on stage and change the narrative or spark the action at the right moment. So playwrights often use last-minute shocks or reprieves for the characters developed though hints and foreshadowing. In other hands Gunderson’s twist might have come across as manipulative but “2016’s most produced living American playwright” has left enough clues in words and tone for two skilled actors to make it believable. That the actors also have to play awkward adolescents makes it a particularly demanding task.
Fortunately, in a work “about two teenagers in a room” as Gunderson puts it, People’s Light have cast as Caroline the female lead their own Claire Inie-Richards, who was so scary in their production of “The Crucible” and funny as a Goth teen in “End Days,” among other expressive roles. Caroline is an ailing housebound teen who has taken the usual defense mechanisms of sarcasm and putdowns and turned them into a near-impenetrable wall. To break holes in it comes the infinitely patient Anthony (Ricardy Charles Fabre) who appears uninvited in her bedroom loaded with ideas for a class project on Walt Whitman and “homework bombs a sick girl,” as Caroline puts it.
Anthony’s slow, sure charm (combined with the aforementioned waffle fries, plus a helping of Whitman’s poetry and a dash of John Coltrane’s sax music) gradually wears down Caroline’s defences much as his basketball skills wear down the opposition. His insistence that they work to complete this project is both touching and suspicious but the two have begun to reach common ground and Caroline defrosts. “Remember when I was going to pummel you? This is way better!”
Director Samantha Reading has the “two teenagers in a room” translate their fears and frustrations into lively action that circles, jumps, slides and bops around the relatively limited space of the Steinbright Stage with appropriate brio even for the ill Caroline.