She walks into a spotlight and talks to us, this fresh-faced, adorable girl, good-natured, sparkling with intelligence, in the beauty of her youth. She likes grown-ups but why do they make life so complicated? It’s not. They make it complicated. That’s how she sees it. And then she walks off.
Joanna (wonderful Trudi Jackson) is sitting on the couch like a stone, a drink in her hand, the floor littered with baby toys and some diapers. She turns on Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman” full blast and dances and sings violently. It hurts to see. Robert (pitch perfect Mark Rice-Oxley) enters quickly, turns off the music. The baby’s crying on the baby monitor. She can hear it now. Robert goes to attend to little Lily. The air is thick with guilt. And, seething underneath, a whole mess.
He returns, Lily now quiet. He’s invited Jake over. Jake wants to see Lily. Jake is their oldest friend. Robert works with Jake at University. Works for Jake. There are noises of cuts in the wind. Joanna’s very fond of Jake, isn’t she, and it will only be for a quick visit. And while Joanna is sullenly picking up, straightening up, he says that Jake is bringing a friend, that’s all right, isn’t it, Joanna, when it is obviously not all right one goddam bit and she looks like shit. Which she does. She goes to repair.
Enter Jake (dead-on Alan Cox). And friend. Stella (delightful Daisy Hughes). It’s our dear girl who tried to introduce the show. Jake is more than twice her age. She’s positively school girl. She IS school girl. And sweet and comfortable. Well, almost. Good at filling the awkward bits. A darling girl. Who notices the posters on the walls of the living room: Don’t Look Now (Julie Christie’s film), Belle de Jour (Catherine Deneuve’s film), Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. They’re original posters. Robert collects posters. After all, that’s what he and Jake lecture in at University, the Modern Cinema. Stella’s not quite sure she knows these ancient classics but she’s in proper awe. Jake thinks she’s adorable. Robert feels she’s making him question something he does not want to question. What’s she studying? Oh, she’s not in University yet. She may not even go.
Joanna returns, lipsticked, combed, dressed, barefoot, very modern woman. They open the bottle of wine Jake has brought, touting its character, vintage and virtues. She pours three wines. Robert uses her old, half-filled wine glass. Jake wants to know what’s for dinner and Joanna almost cracks which everybody sees and all jump in, pizza saving the day. Until Lily cries. Again. Robert goes. Everybody has more wine.
Playwright Hannah Patterson has shaped a coolly murderous look at us, not dotting all the i’s or crossing the t’s. She wants us to do it for ourselves. And we can’t help but tighten our shoulders and get into it. From the beginning. Because set designer Simon Scullion has devised one of the cleverest, most devious settings for a black box theater, with the utmost simplicity laying bare a worms nest of questions. And the posters? Director Hannah Eidinow and writer Patterson and designer Scullion have pitched in together to make us ask ourselves: Wait a minute. Modern cinema? The be all and end all? And teaching this at university to the next generation? As well as the next? There’s even a third generation since and they’re going to be studying these and their ilk as — as what? Well, it’s been going on for some time now, a whole industry of it so why not? But is this what our society thinks it’s important to teach our coming members of the society?
And then you tack – but, well, they are worth looking at, studying, aren’t they? Antonioni? Pasolini? Di Sica? And then you tack again: Oh, come on, some perspective here. Are these our great classics? Hardly. But – and by then you are not paying close attention to the problems of Joanna and Robert and Jake and Stella because they’ve got you thinking, dammit.
And then you realize that that is exactly what director, playwright and company want you to do. Then you begin to see the chasm Joanna feels hating the child that took her from the job she loved and how in the world do we mend that? Then you begin to see that Robert’s self-worth is built on shards of something that took off in the wrong direction. Then you begin to see with the young eyes of Stella and wonder what she’s going to make of her future and if she’s alone in her clear eyed-ness? And Jake? He’s insulated himself. Don’t we all.
Playing with Grown Ups is indeed playing with grown-ups and quite one of the most absorbing, stimulating and upsetting – and entertaining – evenings in this singular season of smashing entertainments.
How kind of the Brits to give us this jolt. Or did kindness have anything to do with it…
Playing with Grown Ups (through May 18, 2014)
Brits Off Broadway Festival
59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, near Park Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.59e59.org
Running time: 95 minutes with no intermission