The world premiere of Agnes Borinsky’s “The Trees” at Playwright’s Horizons certainly offers an interesting premise–(from press materials): “Siblings Sheila and David unwittingly establish a utopian community in a public park after waking up and realizing their feet have rooted into the ground.”
As the play opens, we encounter the drunken pair Sheila (Crystal Dickinson) and David (Jess Barbagallo) stumbling around in the dark near their home. After they awaken from passing out, they discover their feet have indeed taken root. Sheila grasps for reasons; she tells David, “Maybe we just needed to stop, you know? Maybe everything just needed to stop.”
As the days, months, and even years pass, Sheila and David accumulate an odd collection of characters who for their own reasons have gravitated to this park and to its now famous human-tree inhabitants: David’s soon to be ex-boyfriend and also a representative of the municipal planning office, Jared (Sean Donovan); “twinks” Julian (Nile Harris) and Tavish (Pauli Pontrelli); fair-weather friend Charlotte (Becky Yamamoto), gentle drifter Norman (Ray Anthony Thomas); Sheila and David’s grandmother, aka “Baba” (Danusia Trevino); Terry, an exploitive vendor (Sam Breslin Wright); rabbi Saul (Max Gordon Moore); and a member of his congregation, Sheryl (Marcia DeBonis).
These various characters come and go, intersecting with each other randomly, until they finally unite over the troubling news that a mall is going to be built around Sheila and David.
Barbagallo and Dickinson as the sibling tree pair carry the show fairly well. All cast members are commended for their comic timing and physical humor, especially Donavan and Harris, and what moments of depth that exist in the play itself are well anchored by Dickinson, Moore and DeBonis.
Borinsky’s dialogue is filled with colorful, quirky lines which are often funny and entertaining, but the entire script borders on absurdity without a cohesive through point. There are a handful of lines which carry a promise of meaning, but most are tossed into the air like tweets, missing connections and lacking purpose. There’s a passage inspired from Deuteronomy 20:19, which, if it’s supposed to be the inspiration for the plot, stands alone as one of the few sage moments in the story:
A tree is a person….a tree is not a person….maybe a person is a tree? It’s mostly about the fruit….when you lay siege to the city you can attack the walls and poison the water and kill the people but you can’t cut down the trees that bear fruit.
A meaty sounding passage, although it comes out of nowhere, and doesn’t really represent the plot–Sheila and David are in no threat of being cut down and killed. The proposal to build a mall around them would actually offer them safety, yet the idea of it offends everyone’s sensibilities. Ultimately, the introduction of the mall problem feels like a construct designed to force a conflict which doesn’t hold weight.
Tina Satter’s direction does well in navigating the actors around Parker Lutz’s grand, multi-level playing area and in steering them through their humorous bits for maximum comedic effect. There are some confusing staging choices, though: when characters speak of going inside the house but don’t exit through the door, or when Sheila and David randomly sink and rise at various points in the play for no apparent reason; when Norman’s lines for his entire first scene are delivered from offstage or when Julian is seated with his back to the audience delivering dialogue upstage (these last two choices are called for in the script but which should have been overridden for practical reasons).
The space is imaginatively lit by Thomas Dunn, although the first scene of the play which takes place “in the dark” is too dark for the audience to see Sheila and David fully. Enver Chakartash’s colorful costumes are delightful and distinctly personal, defining each wearer in the most unique of ways.
Borinsky cites an inspiration from Kafka, saying she “took ideas that might seem like punchlines and stayed with them. I love the idea of staying with something that seems like a joke long enough for it to become something else – something stranger, or unexpectedly rich.” For this theatergoer, the script never grows from said joke into something as meaningful as the parable suggested in the premise.
When Rabbi Saul is asked whether his congregation might be able to help Sheila and David’s situation, he responds with “I think they just don’t understand how any of this matters.” I have to say I agree, not about the characters’ dilemma, but about the play itself. It’s a nice idea that doesn’t quite take root in its own soil.
The Trees (through March 19, 2023)
Mainstage Theater, 416 W. 42nd St, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.playwrightshorizons.org/shows/plays/trees/
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes without an intermission