Children at Play
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 6, 2009
When I was in the 11th grade I would have deep conversations with my friend Frank about atomic bombs. I remember being sincerely shocked by Frank's conviction that total nuclear annihilation would happen in our lifetimes. From him, I later realized, I had my first experience with postmodernism.
Well, the generation behind mine is the one that was still of an impressionable age when nuclear disaster became a reality. Chernobyl happened in 1986. I never really thought about this until I saw Jordan Seavey's Children at Play, but now it occurs to me: what must it have been like to be a kid old enough to comprehend the twin catastrophes of nuclear accident and institutionalized denial? Seavey's fascinating play—a very dark, very sad work—gives us some clues.
Indeed, one of the characters in Children at Play is Anna, whose family lived in the Soviet Union at the time of the disaster in Chernobyl. Though she's hardly a completely healthy child, she's by far one of the lucky ones, having emigrated to America shortly afterward. She is now going to James Joyce Junior High, a school for gifted and talented kids in NYC. Seavey's play follows Anna and four of her friends through seven years of public education. Chernobyl, in some ways, turns out to be the least of their worries.
The other central characters are Morgan, who is both precocious and bright, and very aware of her own gifts and worth, though at the same time horrifyingly insecure about the latter; Jeremy, not so motivated as Morgan, but generous and eager to please; and Lacey and Lancelot, who have been BFFs for a long time already. The world they enter, as they commence their time at James Joyce, is filled with landmines. Some are the natural ones everybody deals with growing up: identity, ambition, friendship, and, later, sex and love. But there are just as many obstacles in their paths placed there by the not-at-all-well-meaning adults who are supposed to be instructing and supporting them. Being grown-up, in Seavey's play, is very much like being in the midst of the cover-up/clean-up squad at Chernobyl: screwed-up and in denial.
The first half of Children at Play, tracking the junior high years, is as funny as it is grim: for every flashback to nuclear catastrophe there's a witty satirical scene of Morgan's nuclear family pretending to be functional and happy. But in the second act, the play turns irretrievably dark. Sexual abuse, betrayal, manipulation, deceit, and confusion await these characters at every turn. Much of the story revolves around Morgan and Jeremy's conflicted relationships with her brother Martin and his boyfriend Maximilian. Seavey shows us a dangerous world where kids need to grow up fast. The promise of college feels thin and not particularly hopeful.
The production, directed by Scott Ebersold and presented by Collaboration Town, is exemplary. David Newell's spare and simple schoolroom design utilizes the depth of The Living Theater's intimate space spectacularly well and provides a fallout shelter feel for the piece. Nikki Moody's costumes bring individuality to two sets of school uniforms. Lighting by Scott Bolman and sound by Daniel Kluger and Brandon Wolcott contribute mightily to the mood.
The ensemble is led by the excellent actress Susan Louise O'Connor as Morgan, who is convincingly a teenager and just as convincingly a mixed-up, too-smart, too-innocent youngster on a perpetual precipice. John Halbach gives a tour de force performance as Martin and Maximilian, often portraying both at the same time. As the other four children, Drew Hirschfield (Jeremy), Boo Killebrew (Lacey), Geoffrey Decas (Lancelot), and Rachel Craw (Anna) create believable individuals whom we empathize with and root for. As all of the adult characters, Jay Potter and Jennifer Dorr White unleash a parade of villains masquerading as teachers, coaches, moms, and dads.
I left the play feeling more fully aware of the world view of those a decade or two younger than me, and worried that if that generation is as devoid of faith as the characters in this play seem to be, then how will this planet get out of the mess it's in.