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Theatre in Review: The Thing With Feathers (The Barrow Group)

Alexa Shae Niziak. Photo: Todd Cerveris.

That Scott Organ is a sly one: He opens his new play on such a note of mundane naturalism that you might begin to feel your eyes glazing over at the prospect of yet another family drama with nowhere to go. But trust the playwright -- or, rather, don't, because the venerable phrase "things are not what they seem" is especially meaningful here. Before long, he ensnares his characters in a ticking-bomb situation that will leave you in a constant state of tense expectation. There's no way this play can end well; the suspense lies in just how bad the damage will be.

It opens with sixteen-year-old Anna (soon to be seventeen, a key plot point, as it happens) in her bedroom, desultorily putting the final touches on a paper about Emily Dickinson, while chatting, via laptop, with Eric, a college student she met online. It's an uneventful exchange -- about, among other things, poetry, family nicknames, and the suitability of pizza for breakfast -- until near the end, when Eric starts to get rather flirty. Still, as Anna explains to Beth, her mother, who takes a dim view of her daughter chatting with older men, Eric goes to school nine hundred miles away, so what are the chances of anything happening? In any case, Beth has news of her own: She thinks Tim, the man she has been dating, is going to propose. The scene that follows, although directed with a nice offhand touch, is less than electric. It does, however, plant certain key facts: Anna and Beth have an unusually close relationship -- Anna's father is long out of the picture -- and Beth has a distinct, if lightly rendered, problem with guilt and self-acceptance. Even so, as it concludes, you may find yourself wondering where all this going and why you should care.

The answer comes in the next scene, six days later, on Anna's birthday. She is alone at home when Eric appears on her doorstep, having driven halfway across the country just to offer his felicitations. To Anna, this is not a welcome surprise, nor are the revelations that he is not a college student, is in fact twenty-eight, and comes bearing a volume of Dickinson and offers of love. ("I don't want to lie to you anymore," he says, a statement that should be taken with a shakerful of salt.) Not thinking clearly, Anna stashes Eric in her bedroom, planning to deal with him later.

As for what happens next, you won't get another word out of me. I will, however, note that Anna's choice is the worst possible one, and what unfolds has much less to do with her than you might initially think. I'll also mention that as the action moves from scene to scene, the situation, which involves long-suppressed secrets, proves increasingly dire, even as everyone does their best to pretend that nothing is at all wrong. Under Seth Barrish's tautly controlled direction, this is a crackerjack psychological thriller, a series of muffled shocks hidden under the surface of everyday life, with each character taking a turn as the aggressor, usually to self-defeating effect.

In a lineup of four characters, three of whom are skillful liars -- Tim, well-played by Robert Manning, Jr., is there largely to advance the plot -- Barrish has found actors who are as appealing as they are untrustworthy. Alexa Shae Niziak captures Anna's breezy adolescent demeanor while subtly signaling how easily she falls under Eric's spell and later revealing a thoroughly convincing ruthless streak. DeAnna Lenhart's Beth is a model of rationalization, trying to talk her way out of a terrible jam just as her troubled life finally takes a turn for the better. Best of all is Zachary Booth as Eric, whose charming, open-faced, studiedly sincere manner can only mean that he is up to no good. All three are sufficiently attractive that one wants them to be spared the disaster toward which they are hurtling.

The rest of the production -- Edward T. Morris' two-level set, Solomon Weisbard's understated lighting, and Kristin Isola's costumes -- go a long way toward maintaining an everyday atmosphere even as matters become increasingly fraught. (Matt Otto's sound design plays a crucial role in the scenes that involve Internet dialogues.) Organ clearly knows how to sneak up on an audience, trapping us as easily as he entangles his characters in crimes past and present. We don't get too many psychological thrillers anymore; watching The Thing With Feathers, you may wish they would come around more often. -- David Barbour

(23 January 2018)

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