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From Up Here, at MTC's Stage I

Liz Flahive's From Up Here attempts to find comedy in the aftermath of a fumbled, never very serious stab at violent schoolyard revenge, and it largely succeeds. Both playwright and crew, headed by the insightful Leigh Silverman, take pains to distinguish Kenny (Tobias Segal), a diminutive teenager, from the adolescent headliners who have actually killed others and themselves in recent years. We're reminded what we often forget: that there's a big difference between murder and attempted murder and a good thing, too! The rehabilitation and apology program that Kenny's Midwestern school has thrown together is onerous if well-intentioned, and we can't help wishing that his term in this rather ridiculous purgatory might be brought to a speedier conclusion. But we're well aware that at least the boy is not in hell.

Kenny's tongue-tied ordeal is set within the swirl of a comically stressed family. These are people who struggle to get through a fairly basic to-do list picking up dry cleaning, packing lunch boxes, and so on with grim determination but not very much forethought. Their slips and lapses are presented in a humorous light, but beneath the laughs I could hear the cries and screams of an American middle class that can't, somehow, keep up. I had no trouble understanding Kenny's half-assed assault with (unloaded) rifle as the dim attempt, not to get back at classmates who mock and ostracize him, but to find a reset button somewhere and wipe his family's slate clean.

While this is longing is shared, very privately, by his mother, Grace (Julie White), she is enough of an adult to know that reset buttons disappear after the big prom. As if to remind her of this truth, her sister, Caroline (Arija Bareikis), persists in leading the very skimpy life of a permanent hiker. Caroline, who has returned from the slopes of K-2, perhaps to help her nephew through his probation, is full of hippie, be-here-now wisdom, but it is difficult to believe that a whole and healthy person would be so determined to resist settling down and making commitments. Caroline certainly looks like a free spirit, but she also seems to be trapped in that role.

So Grace dutifully tries to shepherd her family which, in addition to Kenny, consists of his sister, Lauren (Aya Cash), and their stepfather, Daniel (Brian Hutchinson) through the pitfalls of suburban life. Why does this drive her crazy? Ms Flahive's critique of unselfconscious life in the heartland eschews preachy judgment, so I can't say for sure what's wrong with Kenny's family. I have a strong impression, though, that, beneath their busyness, these people are bored to the point of carelessness. Daniel, who doesn't have a job, seems at time to be about to run out of oxygen. Lauren, meanwhile, is impossibly cynical that is, she has learned her cynicism from popular entertainment. The only character in the play who isn't bored is the nuttily confident Charlie (Will Rogers), a goofy troubadour who won't take Lauren's "No!" for an answer. Is it Charlie's drollery that prevents his insistence from being as transgressive as Kenny's moment of misconduct? Or is it that, let the politically correct foam at the mouth if they will, any man worth his hormones ought to be able to tell when "No!" means as it does here "Yes!"

Happily, Grace has a bit of a breakdown herself, even if its not as "serious" as Kenny's. I say, "happily" because, although we don't see the breakdown itself, the explosively-visaged Ms White imbues the aftermath with no end of antic fun. In this near-final scene, Grace is nothing less than a woman who has been struck by the lightning of absurdity the absurdity of a suburban life that relentlessly mows down each and every attempt at introspective satisfaction. No one in From Up Here is capable of finding comfort in this relentlessly superficial world, the opportunistic values of which are embodied by a ghastly priss (Jenni Barber) who is detailed to help Kenny write his public statement of apology.

You can laugh all you like at From Up Here, but you can't leave the theatre without a sigh of relief that you don't live there. (August 2008)

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