“I don’t collect, I accumulate,” the somewhat drunk Marie says to her kindly neighbor and would-be-suitor Bill trying to explain why there’s a ginormous mountain of books dominating the living room of her Manhattan apartment towards the end of Jack Thorne’s “Sunday,” now premiering at the Atlantic Theater. It’s a clever phrase that evokes laughter, but it also proves to be an apt summation for the rather disappointing work onstage.
The award-winning Thorne (a prolific, award-winning British writer whose work includes “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” and the book for the recent musical megaflop “King Kong”) seems to have accumulated a lot of ideas -- the trials of defining yourself in young adulthood, the effect of your past on the present, the importance (or non-importance) of fiction -- without finding a suitable structure to make them effectively. Maybe he’s just gotten used to have multiple hours to make his points rather than a mere 90 minutes?
Maybe that’s why Alice (Ruby Frankel, projecting a wisdom beyond her years) acts as a narrator for the piece – even though she barely knows the play’s central character Marie (the consistently superb Sadie Scott), who is struggling to find her place in the world at large, as well as the world of book publishing? As Thorne knows, this sort of show-not-tell is a simple way to give us some exposition; but both the device and much of the information Alice conveys to us feel entirely unnecessary.
Thorne also ensures we learn a fair amount about Alice’s “friends” – Marie’s sweet roommate Jill (an appealing Juliana Canfield), Alice’s childhood pal and Jill’s current boyfriend, the “toxically masculine,” extremely rich and downright obnoxious Milo (an effective Zane Pais) and Keith (a fine Christian Strange), the good-natured, middle-class African-American guy Milo first befriended in boarding school -- during an often confrontational “book club” meeting. But then we never see any of these people again, which feels slightly weird.
During the meeting, Thorne concentrates a fair amount of the conversation around the actual book they’re discussing, Anne Tyler’s highly lauded 1992 novel “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.” Yes, the book’s plot echoes much of what “Sunday” explores, and the characters do a decent-enough job of filling us in on the novel’s themes, but most of us (who either never read the book or forgotten it in the ensuing years) will feel left out during these exchanges.
Still, for me, the biggest mystery is the hit-and miss work of the talented director Lee Sunday Evans (who helmed the far superior “Dance Nation”). If one senses, early on that Evans was afraid the play feel talky or static without a lot of extraneous movement, she then simply yet beautifully stages the play’s touching and best-written final section: a heart-to-heart late-night conversation between the emotionally troubled Marie and the surprisingly sincere Bill (perfectly embodied by Maurice Jones) that one fears will end badly and hopes will conclude happily. (I won’t say what happens.)
Admittedly, I suspect audience members a generation (or two) younger than myself may find “Sunday” either more involving and less vexing than I did. As the show’s “epilogue” reminds us, time often leads to major changes in our approach to life – and, by extension, theater!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Juliana Canfield, Ruby Frankel, Maurice Jones, Zane Pais, Sadie Scott, and Christian Strange
Atlantic Theater Company/Linda Gross Theater
336 West 20th Street
New York, NY 10011