Sean Graney’s “The Fourth Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide” has a cold, merciless beauty. It heightens the suffering of its elementary-aged characters until every lunchroom taunt becomes a stylized assault, and the result is both sumptuous and brutal. Yet compared to its bruising aesthetic, the thinking in this play barely leaves a mark.
Even at its quirkiest — when, say, adults playing children enter in Catholic school uniforms — the production throbs with sadness. That’s partially due to the plot. Right away, a morose lad (Joseph Binder) tells us he and his friends will be performing a play their friend Johnny wrote before he killed himself. The script is a suicide note, explaining how Johnny (Binder again) and his friend Rachel (Jennifer Grace) suffered at the hands of bullies.
But the pain goes deeper. For one thing, the play unfolds in a stark white room blemished only by a few orange floor tiles and a chalkboard in an orange frame. Co-designed by playwright Graney and director Devin Brain, the set’s antiseptic pallor negates any joy we might expect from a roomful of children.
The room also suggests an altar. That fits, since the kids are performing a terrible ritual by recreating Johnny’s final days. And Graney — who has said he was inspired by 17th century Japanese scribe Chikamatsu Monzaemon — writes with epic emotion. Without a hint of subtext, characters bluntly declare their love, loathing, or need to be liked. Their lack of psychology makes them sound like classical heroes.
To some degree, of course, they also sound like typically frank kids, particularly when Johnny bemoans his warm apple juice or diva Sally (Stacy Stoltz) talks about “stupid” boys. Graney — who helms Chicago’s Hypocrites Theater, which staged the play in 2004 — even has some fun twisting childish woes into grand language.
But the actors aren’t playing for laughs. Perfs are somber and intense, communicating both the severity of Johnny’s play and the bewildered grief his friends feel while they appear in it.
Though a few actors slip into kiddie mannerisms, Binder and Grace are haunting. In their minimalist perfs, a small sigh or slightly drooped head — always paired with a blank face — becomes thunderous.
Brain creates a hypnotizing effect by staging many scenes as if they are happening underwater. The sluggishness only intensifies eruptions of cruelty, which are played with high speed, jerky movements and tortured screams. In the most unsettling scene, Jenny and her minion Brenda (Samantha Gleisten) force-feed overweight Rachel while making Johnny watch. It’s mortifying.
And behind these moments, there’s the thought of a dead little boy.
We’re asked to ponder how uniquely sensitive Johnny must have been to write this play. We’re asked to remember that the world wounds gentle souls. But really, who doesn’t know that? Stripped of its style, the script is a rehash of every Judy Blume book about outsiders getting teased.
Plus, the use of children — or, rather, the idealized notion of children as innocents — leaves a taint of manipulation. It’s almost too easy to make us shudder while terrible things happen to kids. Once the production’s in-the-moment potency has waned, that shortcut is difficult to ignore.