Most young playwrights would kill for the elevated profile and royal design treatment Manhattan Theater Club has given Liz Flahive for her first major New York production, including the casting of Julie White, fresh from her Tony win for “The Little Dog Laughed.” But the deluxe handling doesn’t entirely serve this uneven comedy-drama about a fractious family struggling to bounce back from a son’s meltdown. There are moments of acutely observed emotional truth here, but getting to them requires considerable wading through self-conscious quirks in a play whose flaws might have been less evident in a more rough-edged presentation.
When Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Starry Messenger” dropped out of the schedule, MTC pulled this production together as a fast substitute, after the play was workshopped at Ars Nova. One nagging weakness is that the incarnation seems like a way station for the material, en route to becoming an indie film. Theatrical storytelling doesn’t feel like its natural form.
Director Leigh Silverman does a typically assured job of the physical staging, making sharp use of the versatile spaces in Allen Moyer’s shape-shifting sets. But she has a hard time coaxing the actors to find character dimensions that are not quite there in the script.
Chief exception is troubled Midwestern teen Kenny, a brooding, tightly wound ball of pain in Tobias Segal’s sensitive performance. With elegant economy, Flahive parcels out details of Kenny’s depression and the violent episode that caused him to be hospitalized and, since then, under constant supervision, including regular searches of his backpack for weapons. The play’s insubstantial dramatic arc is the preparation for Kenny’s assembly speech, in which he is expected to apologize to the school for spreading fear and unease.
The meandering single act chronicles Kenny’s difficult interaction with his family and fellow students. But Flahive takes an inordinately long time nailing the focus on his relationship with his slightly dippy mother Grace (White), walking on eggshells around her son while struggling to maintain her own composure. The writer and director display equal difficulty agreeing on a suitably light touch, making the angst-meets-cute mix a herky-jerky experience that engages only intermittently on an emotional level.
There are mannered bookend scenes (that add nothing beyond the title) involving Kenny’s free-spirited Aunt Caroline, a mountain-climbing Peace Corps volunteer blandly rendered by Arija Bareikis. There’s Kenny’s well-meaning stepdad Daniel (Brian Hutchison), who cooks, makes his own potpourri and tries too hard to make Grace’s kids like him.
There’s Kenny’s flinty sister Lauren (Aya Cash) and the awkwardly intense, emo-balladeering guy lobbying to be her boyfriend — played by gangly Will Rogers with a funny lack of self-awareness but a few tics too many. And there’s invasive do-gooder Kate (Jenni Barber), whose motives for signing on as Kenny’s student mentor are not exactly selfless.
Much of this is either familiar or a little flat until conflict finally bubbles up in a spiky confrontation between Lauren and Kate that also pushes Grace over the edge. Cash overplays her character’s brittle cynicism via a tendency to shout her lines, but her scenes with Segal are laced with illuminating insights into the affectionate friction between brother and sister. Aside from Aunt Caroline, floating on a cloud of artificial mellowness, Lauren is the only character not scared of getting close to Kenny.
The play improves considerably in the final stretch, although when White describes the explosive episode that occurs (between scenes) after Grace cracks, again it feels like a dry run for full tragicomic dramatization in a movie. Nonetheless, there’s genuine emotion in her hesitant but heartfelt attempt to reach through the chaos to her son and equally authentic feeling in his response.
If Flahive can distribute that perceptiveness more evenly in a complete play rather than a Sundance wannabe, she may mature into a gifted stage writer.