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Theatre in Review: Make Believe (Second Stage Theater/Tony Kiser Theater)

Ryan Foust, Maren Heary, Casey Hilton. Photo: Joan Marcus.

Make Believe is populated with children who play some very adult games; the playwright, Bess Wohl, is a pretty audacious game-player herself. Only someone with nerves of steel would put a quartet of young characters, played by actors aged five through twelve, through emotional paces that lay bare their appalling state of neglect. (One of them, in adulthood, will note that they were "raised by wolves." That's putting it mildly.) They are, from eldest to youngest, Chris, Kate, Addie, and Carl; arriving home from school to find their mother mysteriously absent, they hole up in their attic playroom, indulging in power plays, reenacting their parents' violent squabbles, and, as time passes, fighting off the growing fear that they have been abandoned. If Harold Pinter had ever written for children's theatre, the result might be something like Make Believe.

Left to their own devices, the kids act out, their fooling-around acquiring an increasingly serrated edge as no adult appears. Chris, the house bully, enters in a fury of entitlement, using a soccer ball to provide a downbeat to every syllable of the complaint "There's supposed to be a snack." Kate, lording it over her siblings, speaks to them in French, which none of them understand; she also pens a letter to Princess Grace of Monaco, expressing her theory that they are, in fact, mother and daughter, separated by unknown circumstances. "A careful analysis of bone structure, mine and yours...indicates a clear and undeniable connection," she points out, adding, "Also, je parle fran├žais. And I believe you do as well, although neither of us is French per se. More in common!" Addie reviews the many possibilities for their mother's absence, which, in her view, include abduction by fairies, being devoured by wolves, or amnesia. "Or she died. Like Dad," she adds. "Dad is on a business trip," Kate corrects her. "Mom said he was dead," Addie protests. "Mom said she wished he was dead," her sister replies. "It's not the same thing." From there, it's a short step to Kate, holding a wineglass and sporting the type of sunglasses used to mask a hangover, demanding her pills and crying out, "I can't take care of everyone!"

This sequence, which unfolds across a series of brief episodes, is a hair-raising, if blackly amusing, illustration of Stephen Sondheim's famous proposition that children will listen, as, seeking to control their anxiety, the children repackage their parents' misery in role-play form. (The one exception is Carl, who, at five, is more than happy to take on the role of family dog; he gets fed plenty of snacks and he doesn't have to speak.) Meanwhile, the answering machine, which they listen to through the floorboards, regularly delivers dismaying reports from the outside world, including one from their father, whose "business trip" evidently includes female companionship. Thanks to Bray Poor's creative sound design, the sounds from beyond the playroom take on an increasingly menacing quality, adding a thriller undertone to the action.

The children are, eventually, rescued, and the last we see of them, they are dressed in what may or may not be mourning. Then, in a stunningly simple coup, it is three decades later, and the now-middle-aged siblings have returned for a funeral; we also quickly realize that despite everything we have seen, we don't know the half of it. The tone effortlessly slips into brittle high comedy with a powerful ache in its heart; as the wisecracks fly, one notices Wohl's skill in repurposing tropes from childhood -- the use of "shitstorm" as an all-purpose description for unwanted circumstances, the term "business trip" as a signifier for a marriage in trouble. Other bits of business are equally telling: Addie, a former pretend TV star and now a recurring character on a formulaic crime series, stares in horror at the doll she once eviscerated, wondering who could have done such a thing. She also frankly confesses to feeling totally helpless as a mother, never having had a half-decent role model in that department. Then there's the sweet-natured interloper, caught fooling around with one of the sisters, who has an unexpected connection to the family -- and who innocently drops a bombshell that, in addition to packing a wallop, reframes much of what we have seen.

With its bifurcated structure and the age range of its characters, Make Believe would challenge any director, but Michael Greif's intensively detailed approach makes every moment count, especially in his handling of his young performers. The sight of Maren Heary as Young Kate, turned into the picture of middle-aged angst --"Remember: Don't ever have children," she advises her sister -- is both hilarious and chilling; it's also fascinating to see Ryan Foust's Chris shed his cruelty to become the family caretaker, producing groceries obtained from an unnamed source. Casey Hilton and Harrison Fox are similarly adept as Addie and Carl, poised somewhere between charming and feral. On the adult side, Samantha Mathis, clutching a bottle of white wine for dear life and complaining about the tribe of half-siblings collectively known as "the Scandinavians," captures every bit of Kate's midlife malaise, much of it expressed in scalding commentary. ("Bisexual. The Millennials are all bisexual.") Susannah Flood turns Addie's disgust over their untamed childhood into a prime comic rage: "We were crazy! We brought nuts to school! You can't bring a nut anywhere near a school anymore because somebody might die. You can't have juice...it's like it's heroin or something." Brad Heberlee's Carl, now an executive at Google, goes from total detachment -- conducting a phone conference in the midst of the action -- to unchecked rage, offering a eulogy that quickly becomes a savage bill of indictments. Kim Fischer provides a necessary counterpoint as Chris, who, lacking the others' scars, might as well be a visitor from another planet.

In addition to Poor's sound design, which is crucial to the play's effect, David Zinn has provided a highly detailed attic set that is spacious enough to include a pup tent used later for an adult make-out session; Ben Stanton's lighting smartly combines time-of-day looks with others more attuned to the characters' interior states. Emilio Sosa's costumes speak volumes about how the characters have (or haven't) developed.

Make Believe offers further proof that Wohl is one of the most original and probing writers now at work: Her wide-ranging output includes Pretty Filthy, a musical about porn stars; Small Mouth Sounds, a nearly wordless comedy of manners set in an ashram; and Continuity, a politically minded farce about filming an eco-terrorist thriller in the era of climate change. The only consistent thread running through them is a bluntly honest viewpoint wedded to an understated empathy for her often hapless characters. "Listen," the young Chris tells the others. "It's going to be okay. This is just our childhood. We are not even going to remember most of this stuff when we grow up." He's half-right, but it's probably lucky that none of them knows what's ahead. The play ends on a slightly hopeful note, with a rare moment of maternal tenderness -- but it is surrounded by ghosts, none of whom are likely to be exorcised soon. --David Barbour

(16 August 2019)

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