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Theatre in Review: The Trees (Playwrights Horizons/Page 73 Productions)

Crystal Dickinson, Jess Barbagallo. Photo: Chelcie Parry

Consider this premise. Siblings David and Sheila come stumbling in, blotto, from a party. (She, a resident of Seattle, is visiting him at the family home in Connecticut.) Wandering around a local park, they suddenly find themselves stuck in the ground, unable to move. "My toes are roots," notes David, with less dismay than one might expect. Sheila is a little more upset. "I have a site visit Wednesday," she says. "I have to fly back." But nature or God or something has foiled them; having suddenly developed arboreal characteristics, they're stuck in place -- just like the play.

To be clear, David and Sheila, the twin protagonists of The Trees, aren't like Ti Moune, the heroine of Once on This Island who dies and comes back as a sapling; they are rooted in the ground but, otherwise, they remain themselves although, as imagined by playwright Agnes Borinsky, they have few, if any, salient characteristics. Mostly, they act as magnets of a sort, drawing an ad hoc community of friends and followers who enjoy hanging out with them.

They are a diverse bunch. Charlotte, Sheila's self-involved friend, starts out helpful, providing the siblings with necessary items, before eventually ghosting them. There's Jared, David's ex-boyfriend, who complains, "You never want to do anything!", blithely ignoring the fact that David is unable to move; Jared returns later, having become a municipal official, worried that David and Sheila might be defecating on public lands. (They aren't -- a bit of news that must have been a tremendous relief to stage management.) A vendor passes through, selling peanuts and potato chips; he somehow becomes a businessman with a plan to build a shopping mall around David and Sheila -- although by the play's end, several years later, no progress has been made. Then again, does anyone build malls anymore?

Others include Julian, who is young and gay; Norman, who is middle-aged and gay; and Tavis, who is young and nonbinary; I only bring up their sexual orientations or gender identities because there is little else to say about them. David and Sheila's grandmother -- so ancient that she personally recalls pogroms and the Hapsburgs -- shows up, speaking entirely in Polish. Sheryl, a middle-aged Jewish woman, benefits from some of Borinsky's better writing, although it may be that Marcia DeBonis, who plays her, simply knows how to make the most of her material. Sheryl, who is from Cleveland, belongs to a synagogue run by Saul, a rabbi who -- I think -- fathers the boy Ezra with Sheila. I have no idea how this happens; if you're going to worry about such details, you're not going to have much fun at The Trees.

Then again, if you care about narrative, characterization, suspense, and the clash of ideas, you're likely to experience The Trees as actively irritating. In a program note, Borinsky advocates for a kinder, gentler kind of playwriting, citing a Marxist critic who urges against using "dread as a dramaturgical instrument." (The playwright also says, "I'm not great at writing plot," which may be the understatement of the year.) Thus, the play offers no action but plenty of whimsies and musings about life that, untethered from anything, struggle to stand up on their own. The portrayal of an improvised family of kooks and visionaries is meant to be moving, even inspirational. "I hope you know how much you had here. How much you have," Sheryl says, but you'll have to take her word for it.

Jess Barbagallo and Crystal Dickinson, a pair of ever-game pros, do their absolute best as David and Sheila; it can't be easy to remain in place for an hour and forty minutes. (When winter sets in, some kind soul provides them with something to sit on.) The supporting players are left with characters who are, at best, notional. But Max Gordon Moore is touching as Saul, who has seen real agony and searches to find a framework for it in his daily life, and DeBonis, dressed and coiffed like a character in a Roz Chast cartoon, brings some much-needed soul to these arbitrary proceedings. I also liked Becky Yamamoto as the air-headed Charlotte. Director Tina Satter, who did such strong work a season or two ago in Is This a Room? acts more like a traffic cop here, managing the comings and goings without finding a style or tone that works. It's a thankless task, to be sure.

These problems extend to the design. Parker Lutz's all-white set, dominated by pillars that, in an abstract way, resemble trees, is, quite literally, a blank slate for Thomas Dunn's saturated color treatments. It's an arrangement that is neither particularly attractive nor helpful in underlining the play's themes; one suspects that the weak writing left them little to work with. With their palette of primary colors, Enver Chakartash's oddly styled costumes look like they were designed for the cast of a children's television program. Tei Blow's sound design includes an attractive playlist of preshow tunes ("You Get What You Give," by New Radicals, and "Karma Police" by Radiohead) in addition to key effects like the howling of wolves and Saul's voice on a FaceTime conversation. Amanda Villalobos' puppets, including a wolf pack and giant spider, are well-executed.

Borinsky is one of a number of current playwrights who want to dispense with such traditional dramatic tools as conflict and psychology, which is rather like painting a portrait without color or perspective; you can do it, but you're making your job almost impossibly difficult. What talents she possesses may be better deployed in other contexts such as poetry, where her taste for airy abstractions can have free rein. An exercise such as The Trees quickly becomes tiresome as one realizes that nothing onstage matters. I think there's a misprint in the program; the correct title should be The Twees. --David Barbour

(6 March 2023)

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