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Theatre in Review: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally (One Year Lease Theater Company/59E59)

Danny Bernardy, Sarah-Jane Casey, Nick Flint, Christina Bennett Lind, Ethan Slater. Photo: Russ Rowland

It's probably safe to say that you've never before seen a play narrated by a smartphone, a gap that is now neatly filled by Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally. In addition to its storytelling function, the phone, an Android, is also the catalyst for disaster in Kevin Armento's new play. It belongs to a 14-year-old boy named Red, who is enrolled in a new high school following his parents' divorce. When he is caught checking for text messages in his math class, the teacher impounds the phone, then fails to return it when the class is over. Instead, she takes it home and peruses it; she is particularly struck by a series of photos of rock towers that he has constructed in beach settings. (The play is set in Southern California.) When Red gets the phone back the next day, he discovers a new photo: A tower made out of pieces of mahi-mahi (the teacher's dinner from the night before). Red is intrigued. Soon they're exchanging messages. Soon they're masturbating while texting and sending suggestive photos. If you think this story ends happily, you need to get out more.

One Year Lease embraces the notion of collective storytelling, so the Android's narrative is spoken by all five members of the cast, each of whom also represents a major character in the story. This narrative method also comes with its own set of mannerisms, most notably in the stylized movement choreographed by Natalie Lomonte, which, at different times, supports the story and fussily distracts from it. The text is also loaded with repetitions, a theatrical device perhaps designed to divert our attention from the fact that Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally is not really a drama but a gussied-up prose piece. Still, the staging and the fine cast both go a long way toward tabling questions about Red and his teacher's poorly motivated reckless behavior -- really, they don't pause for a second before leaping into felony territory -- and that Android, which is pretty darn omniscient, given its ability to describe events in distant locations.

But if Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally -- the title is taken from a mnemonic device used by math instructors -- is an overfamiliar tale that doesn't always bother to flesh out its characters, Armento's writing is almost always pleasurable on a line-by-line basis. The teacher is described early on as "a typical beige math lady." Her partner, Donald, is a would-be Internet wizard: "He's developing an app, the next big idea, he watches lots of TED talks." In reality, "he's made dinner for the two of them; he does this to mask his unemployment." A racy photo sent by the teacher is "a pixel-by-pixel recreation of a neckline, a purple blouse, two buttons short of normal." Describing how recent events have forced Red to see his parents in a new and unflattering light, the Android says, "From this divorce has sprung forth higher-resolution images of mom and dad, many new shades that had been obscured by marriage."

And, as the lies and misunderstandings pile up -- Donald thinks his partner is concealing a pregnancy, Red's bibulous mother, her mind clouded by liquor and wishful thinking, imagines that he has become a social hit at his new school, thus explaining his endless absences from home -- an authentic feeling of suspense begins to build. No good can come of this misalliance, and Armento finds an original way to conclude his scenario, the elements of which include a highway accident, a secret burial, and a brutal understanding that forever links Red to Donald and the math teacher.

If Ianthe Demos' direction sometimes struggles to merge the movement scenes with the text, her handling of the actors is impressive. Ethan Slater captures Red's sense of alienation and the terror he feels when he senses that his lover is slipping from his grasp. If the script never fully comes to terms with the teacher's self-destructive behavior -- why does she take the phone home in the first place? -- Christina Bennett Lind convincingly makes the case that she might have deep feelings for a boy half her age. Danny Bernardy is fine as Red's father, especially in a fast-paced tennis game sequence, in which he offers his utterly useless paternal advice. Sarah-Jane Casey is especially good at conveying the pathetic, needy side of Red's mother; describing her at home, "drinking a mojito, which she's earned," she places so much pious emphasis on the last three words that you instantly know she has an alcohol problem. She makes something harrowing out of a parent-teacher conference loaded with hostile overtones. Nick Flint arguably does the best work as Donald, who decides to man up and support his "pregnant" girlfriend, then takes extraordinary steps to hush up her immoral behavior.

The production benefits from a sleek, simple production design. James Hunting's set consists of a deck with a pit in the center that contains props and also at times provides a hiding place for members of the cast. Mike Riggs' lighting design frames the deck and pit in rope light and places a lightbox over the stage, bathing the action in different tints to delineate a range of emotional states. Among other things, Kenisha Kelly's uncluttered, casual costumes allow the teacher to make one on-stage change from a typically dowdy work outfit to something clingy that is much sexier. In place of a sound design, there is the original score, written by Estelle Bajou and played by her on a mandolin.

Presented in a more conventional manner, Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally might collapse under the weight of its myriad narrative weaknesses and elisions. Done in the One Year Lease manner, it still doesn't fully convince, yet it's hard not to get caught up in its depiction of a train wreck in the making. By the end, you may even feel the pain of what happens to these foolhardy, yet tragic, lovers. -- David Barbour

(13 October 2015)

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