|THIS FLAT EARTH|
A middle-school student facing the aftermath of a terrible – and all-too-topical – tragedy proves not to be the only person dealing with grief in “This Flat Earth,” Lindsay Ferrentino’s affecting yet sometimes maudlin new work, now at Playwrights Horizons. In their own ways, each of Ferrentino’s five characters -- of different ages, races and economic stations -- must figure out how to handle deep sorrow, whether through rage, tears, or even resignation.
Nonetheless, the main focus of the play, which has been directed with minimal flair by Tony Award winner Rebecca Taichman, is firmly on Julie (the remarkable Ella Kennedy Davis). A month after the incident (of which Ferrentino provides rather minimal details), Julie hasn’t fully processed this life-changing experience. She is afraid to go to sleep, even when her single dad, Dan (Lucas Papaelias) is in the room, tries (too hard) when she can to act “normal,” and eventually lashes out harshly at Lisa (the extraordinary Cassie Beck), the mother of one of the students who was killed. However, even in her worst moments, one can’t help but feel sympathy for Julie, since no girl her age should be forced to make sense of the senseless, something even most of the adults around her cannot manage.
While she has far less stage time than Julie, Lisa is actually one of the most interesting people in the play: a wealthy woman made painfully aware that money hasn’t shielded her from misfortune, a mother who can’t fully accept that she won’t ever see her child again; and a person who ultimately, in her desire to feel “safe,” makes an unfortunate decision that adversely affects Julie and Dan. One’s heart almost audibly breaks every time she’s on stage.
Meanwhile, Ferrentino’s sharpest drawn character is Julie and Dan’s elderly upstairs neighbor, Cloris, splendidly portrayed by the great Lynda Gravatt. Cloris sits quietly for much of the play’s first half (yet always visible thanks to Dane Lafferty’s clever two-story set), but when she finally speaks, she’s both wry and wise -- a woman we learn who has handled her own personal tragedies with unusual grace. Moreover, her oracle-like final monologue, in which she tells Julie what to expect of her future, is a marvelous piece of writing, splendidly delivered.
Sadly, Ferrentino is on less firm ground with her male characters (which has been true of her other recent plays, “Amy and the Orphans” and “Ugly Lies the Bone”) and their presence really dilutes the play’s effectiveness. Dan, a former stand-up comic turned water company employee, may feel numbed by both the tragedy and the shockingly unexplained loss of his wife years ago, but Papaelias’ too-low-key performance yields mostly yawns.
And what are we to make of Julie’s best friend (and possible romantic interest) Zander (Ian Saint-Germain)? He seems like he could be a popular kid, but it’s equally possible the loneliness of which he speaks may be the result of being the sole African-American in this well-to-do New England town. It’s truly hard to say given how little information Ferrentino gives us.
Given how fresh what happened at the Parkland School in Florida remains, one has to commend Playwrights Horizons for not cancelling the production. (By the way, an obvious change in the Playbill makes one believe the play was originally set in Florida.) Still, one only wishes that “This Flat Earth” didn’t fall so flat quite so often.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Cassie Beck, Ella Kennedy Davis, Lynda Gravatt, Lucas Papaelias, Ian Saint-Germain
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