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Theatre in Review: Sunday (Atlantic Theater Company)

Maurice Jones, Sadie Scott. Photo: Monique Carboni.

It's a time-honored tradition for playwrights to indict the younger generation for being corrupt or feckless or whatever, but Sunday may be the first play to look at the current twentysomething set and diagnose them as crushingly banal. Jack Thorne's play is most notable for the way it resolutely insists on the unimportance of its characters. So thoroughly does he make his case that the audience has practically nothing to do.

The action of Sunday unfolds at the apartment of Jill and Marie, best friends both starting out in publishing. Jill is already on a glide path to success; Marie, whose life has been a long series of calamities, is about to lose her internship. "They said I didn't fit," she notes, letting the words hang in all their teasing ambiguity. They are hosting their regular book club night, joined by three regular attendees. Milo is loaded, because "his father's father's father's father's father's mother's father owned one of the first pieces of New York," and he has a sense of entitlement to go with it. Keith, who is black, likes to pose complicated moral questions -- If you were an ugly adolescent at a school dance and a sad case with Down syndrome invited you onto the dance floor, what would you do? -- that nobody is interested in answering. Completing the quintet is Alice, a tough-talking lesbian who often sits high above Brett J. Banakis' set -- a spare arrangement of furniture dominated by a towering wall of books -- offering lengthy paragraphs of omniscient narration.

It's hard to know what Thorne makes of this bunch, although they certainly don't make much of a case for themselves. Alice says, "The book group started as a post-ironic joke and continued as a post-ironic joke that we were post-ironic about being post-ironic," a statement that dispiritingly sums them up. Milo, characterizing his peers, says, "I think it's about people feeling like they had disappointing childhoods when actually they had normal childhoods. I think it's about a culture of disappointment." Alice adds, "I think we wouldn't want to go back to our childhoods but it's not because we're afraid of them. It's because they were boring -- and I think -- my worry -- and I think all our worries about our adulthoods is that they're going to be boring, too." "Self-pity is the problem," notes Jill, in case we didn't get it. Summing up, Alice says, "We're wry and ironic and dull. In fact, worse than that, we're insignificant. We're the generation that plugged in and all we've done is get terrified at how vast the world is and how little we are....We're children. Total children. Insignificant, unoriginal children."

Well, you won't get any argument from me. Much of the play's nearly two hours' running time is taken up with this form of self-analysis -- which, in another era, was termed navel-gazing. There are a number of little power plays among these mostly longtime friends, along with several spats that turn surprisingly personal -- especially given that the book under discussion is Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by the relatively soothing Anne Tyler -- but saying mean things to each other appears to be the group pastime.

While we are on the subject, how likely is it that these kids would be reading Anne Tyler at all? I only mention this because the script includes references to Picasso, a lengthy quotation from Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage, and a mention of Burt Lancaster as an ideal of male beauty. As representatives of today's young adults, they sound surprisingly ready for their AARP cards.

Also, from time to time the non-action stops cold, Masha Tsimring's lighting switches from a subtle white wash to colorful, blatantly theatrical looks, and the characters launch into short dance interludes. Each of these lasts a minute or two, after which the actors return to character and carry on as if nothing has happened. I cannot say with any confidence what the playwright is getting at here; I can say that as stylized gestures go, these are remarkably half-hearted.

Sunday picks up a bit in its final third, when Marie -- who is haunted by illness, depression, and the death of a college roommate -- finds herself alone with Bill, the downstairs neighbor who drops by in an effort to make a connection. Marie, in Sadie Scott's trenchant performance, is one of life's natural sad cases, equally intelligent and utterly lacking a sense of self-worth, dogged by an overprotective mother yet unable to thrive on her own. Bill, in the solid hands of Maurice Jones, is a lonely, good-natured guy, stuck in a boring job and devoted to writing science-fiction novels that he is too bashful to share. Seeing the two of them tentatively circle each other, even as they admit that neither of them is likely to amount to anything -- provides the play with its only touch of poignancy. This episode can't bring about a satisfactory conclusion, however, and it falls to Alice to offer an epilogue detailing everyone's fate far into the future. Most of these are cleverly imagined -- with happy and sad endings doled out randomly -- but, at this point, it is extremely difficult to care what happens to any of them.

The other production aspects, including Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene's costumes, Lee Kinney's sound, and Daniel Kluger's original music, are all perfectly acceptable. The rest of the cast capably delivers the characters as written, a particularly tricky assignment for Zane Pais, who manages to keep the endlessly bloviating Milo from becoming totally insufferable. But the question hanging over Sunday is what Lee Sunday Evans, who directed and choreographed, saw in this script. Thorne has had great success co-adapting J. K. Rowling's scenario for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and theatricalizing the Swedish horror film Let the Right One In. His version of A Christmas Carol, which is coming to Broadway, has become an annual London favorite. (We will draw a veil over his book for the musical King Kong, a project that was snakebit for so many reasons.) But as an example of his original work, Sunday isn't very encouraging. It certainly won't do a thing for the popularity of book clubs. --David Barbour

(10 October 2019)

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