nytheatre.com review by Robin Rothstein
May 3, 2008
How do you fill the void when someone so central in your life is suddenly gone forever? And how do you go on when you then find out that this person wasn't someone you knew as well as you thought you did? Substitution, the earnest yet awkward new play by Anton Dudley about a mother's struggle to move past the accidental drowning of her teenage son, strives to examine the heightened feelings that bond people in times of intense grief, but in the end, the piece doesn't quite hold water.
"There are no words" is a phrase that the character referred to by substitute art teacher Paul as "Calvin's Mom" repeats often at the beginning of Substitution. We first meet Calvin's Mom—who is played with a lovely, vulnerable commitment by Jan Maxwell—several weeks after the death of Calvin. She speaks her inner thoughts to us directly, as she stands near a makeshift memorial of flowers, candles, and toys. One toy in particular, a small superhero action figure, will soon hold great significance.
Bursting in on her quiet reflections is Paul, the well-intentioned young substitute art teacher—and painfully inappropriate grief counselor—played with hyper intensity by Kieran Campion. From the start, Paul and Calvin's Mom couldn't seem more different, she the reserved flutist, he the recent grad student, enthusiastic to the nth, who still carries a backpack. Paul is more like a pre-teen in a man's body than a mature adult. Paul's intrusions and bold familiarity both repel and intrigue Calvin's Mom. See, Paul knew Calvin in an intimate, parental kind of way that Calvin's Mom never did, and perhaps never would have. This becomes especially clear when Paul describes Calvin's hands. He does so with such artistry and specificity that Calvin's Mom feels threatened and ashamed. She realizes she never could have described Calvin's hands, certainly not in that kind of detail. She never looked at her introverted son that closely apparently.
As Paul helps Calvin's Mom gather the memorial items, he picks up the small aforementioned superhero action figure that was left by someone as an offering, and with unintentional crassness offers it to Calvin's Mom to keep near her, in a sense, as a substitute for Calvin. Like his fellow classmates, who perished on the fatal ethics class field trip, Calvin had dressed in costume as his own invented "ethical superhero." Yet this inappropriate suggestion of using the toy in place of Calvin to help her through this rough time sends Calvin's Mom reeling. Paul has pressed some buttons and Calvin's Mom will soon feel compelled to understand this man, this substitute whom she has never met, yet who had a close bond with her son.
Interspersed among the Paul and Calvin's Mom scenes are scenes that take place several weeks before on a school bus, featuring Calvin's classmates Jule and Dax being driven to their ethics class field trip, which also turns out to be their demise. Jule is dressed as "Winged Girl." Her ethical superhero avatar helps to keep the air clear for breathing. Dax is dressed as Merboy, who apparently helps to keep the rivers clean for skinny-dipping. Jule and Dax speed-speak their way through teenage-centric banter and predict the futures of their fellow classmates, including the "unmemorable" Calvin. Shana Dowdeswell (Jule) and Brandon Espinoza (Dax) are authentic as two teenage friends who start to realize that they have deeper feelings for each other than they may be ready to admit. Though these scenes possess a quirky sweetness, and also serve as a kind of counterpoint to the Paul and Calvin's Mom scenes, they at times feel overwritten and not part of the same play.
Directed in broad strokes by Katherine Kovner, the characters come across mostly as one-note, energized states of mind rather than fully realized people. Tom Gleeson's aquatically inspired set provides a serene, lugubrious backdrop that coordinates nicely with Jeff Croiter's alternately realistic and metaphysical lighting design—though, it took me a couple of scenes to realize that Jule and Dax were on a school bus and not in a bedroom, as it looked more like they were laying together on a mattress covered by a fitted sheet, as opposed to sitting on a bus seat. Theresa Squire's colorful superhero costumes add a charming, innocent touch and are impressively designed. It's too bad that Jule and Dax stay seated in their small, surreal window frame for basically the whole play and so you don't really get to see the full splendor of Squire's work.
There are clearly dramatic, human elements at the core of Substitution, but this potential is largely untapped and under-explored, causing the piece to feel superficial and fractured. Had more attention been devoted to economizing the dialogue and uncovering more of the play's subtler undercurrents, this production of Substitution would have likely felt richer and more fully realized.