The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide
nytheatre.com review by Daniel Kelley
November 13, 2007
Johnny wrote this before he shot himself.
So begins The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide, a true theatrical marvel, currently playing at 59E59. With the brevity and directness of a Greek tragedy, The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide explores the depths of the human experience as seen through the eyes of fourth graders. At times funny, at times horrifying, this is a unique theatrical experience that should not be missed.
The story of the play is about a fourth grade class putting on the play that their classmate Johnny wrote before he shot himself. The play within the play is the story of Johnny, and the relationships he has with the other girls in his grade, and the grief and joy that they cause. There's Rachel, a girl who fears that she is fat, but whom Johnny truly loves. There's Sally, a very rich girl, who has tossed aside her former boyfriend, the bully Mike Rice, to go after Johnny. Then there is Lucy Law, the hall monitor, who loves Johnny as well, and secretly desires to abandon her hall monitor status and join the crowd. What follows from these characters is a story of love, betrayal, and revenge worthy of the Greeks.
What makes this possible is the tremendous work that playwright Sean Graney has done to stylize, without parodying, the language of fourth graders. The language is formal, stilted and awkward—at once, the way that fourth graders talk and reminiscent of Tony Harrison's translation of the Oresteia. For example, when Rachel is made to watch while Sally tries to force Johnny to kiss her, she cries out to Johnny:
RACHEL (through a mouthful of chewed cookies): Don't Johnny.
Don't do it.
It is all we have left Johnny
Is your purity.
The language is simple, direct, and true. It allows the world of fourth grade love politics, which feels to fourth graders as though it is the most important experience of their lives, to take on significant metaphorical weight, so that we too can feel the enormity of how these events affect these children, and how that relates to us. It allows their small world to truly become something universal.
This universality is heightened by the choices of director Devin Brain. Instead of presenting to us a cast of kids, the actors are all adults, who perform as fourth graders in a way that is both highly stylized yet relatable. This adds to the sense of heightened drama within this childhood story. Rather than having the audience look down from the vantage point of adulthood on children, the stylized awkwardness, joy, and fury make the struggles of these characters feel larger and more identifiable.
The cast of adult actors playing these fourth graders is remarkable. Joseph Binder as Johnny is stellar—perfectly balancing the simplicity of his character's understanding of the world with the largeness that it represents. He is heartbreaking, earnest, and completely committed throughout the piece. Jennifer Grace as Rachel is also excellent—equally earnest and touching, with the most startling and powerful moment in the play at the very end.
Jared Moore's lighting design truly creates the fluorescent wasteland of the classroom this play is taking place in, while Alison Siple's costume design contributes to the stylized nature of this class of fourth graders.
I cannot recommend you see the play highly enough. It is a unique experience—touching, heartbreaking and truly theatrical. It is delving into the psyche of our nation, and coming up with something that is not about how "other" this child is who has killed himself—it is not video games or television or movies or music that have killed this child—but rather, how he is like all of us. Frightening though it may be, his alienation, his joy, his fury in the fourth grade is the same as ours as we go through our daily lives. If you go to the theatre to be moved, to be made to think and to be changed, you will want to see this play.