Every year American Theatre magazine lists the top 20 most-produced playwrights in America for the season, Shakespeare excluded. Each list features a handful of the usual established suspects: Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller. More recent darlings also expectedly rate: Sarah Ruhl, Aaron Posner, Ayad Akhtar. But reading this year’s list, I paused and thought, Lauren Gunderson? Who’s that? My schooling came quickly when I learned that not only had her play I and You won the 2014 Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, but that thanks to a roll-out world premiere program, I and You has enjoyed more than 40 productions nationwide.
The story is a teenage two-hander populated by Caroline, a homebound, seriously ill girl who uses sarcasm and prickliness to hide her fear and anger, and Anthony, a mysterious but overly decent classmate. When Anthony shows up at Caroline’s bedroom door insisting that their English teacher has assigned a Walt Whitman project for them to work on, Caroline at first refuses to let him in. She doesn’t remember Anthony from class, and is sure her mother is behind the visit. Perhaps it's a parental effort to make Caroline feel like less of a freak for having had to pull out of school recently because of her worsening illness. But Anthony convinces her that the project is legit, so the two embark on an evening of poetry, homework, bickering, sharing and ultimate understanding of what two people can accomplish when they work together and open their eyes to possibility.
The Houston premiere of I and You comes courtesy of Stages Repertory Theatre, which, under the direction of Seth Gordon, delivers to us a production that, while surefooted on many levels, can’t ultimately rise above the problems within the play itself.
Spoiler alert: There is a huge surprise twist ending in I and You that makes us think differently about the entire 80-minute play. Non-spoiler alert: I’m not going to even hint at what it is. Which leaves us on somewhat shaky ground review-wise, because to review what comes before the end is really to review only one-half of the play and even then not in its entirety. But since we don’t know that as we’re watching the thing, I’ll try to forget what I know and deal with what we see.
Unfortunately, what we’re shown in the form of plot is a bit of a slog. It takes a lot of convincing on Anthony’s part to make Caroline care about Whitman, specifically his poem "Song of Myself" and the use of the pronouns "I" and "you" in the work. For those who love Whitman, it might be fun to listen to an overly earnest teenage boy speak about the poet’s feelings on the act of living and our interconnectedness. But I doubt it. Mostly, we take in the recited passages and the teens’ grappling with them and wonder when the real plot will finally show up.
When Whitman’s poetry isn’t being bantered about, the teens engage in a by-the-books, sappy, defences-down, get-to-know-you kind of spiral that has them trade personal stories in place of more meaty character development. Rather than allow the characters to speak as true teens, Gunderson simply injects a few swear words and "bite me’s" in the hope that we gloss over their ridiculously adult-like conversations. As Caroline grows fonder of Anthony, we learn that she loves to take arty photos, is an Elvis fan and wants to go to New York some day if her liver transplant comes through in time to save her life. If that’s a vague outline, Anthony is even worse; he’s all over the place. As Anthony opens up to Caroline, he reveals himself to be a poetry-loving member of the basketball team, a popular guy who loves old-school jazz and thinks girls are weird yet apparently is a bit of a lady killer. I defy anyone to show me a teen boy with these disparate creds. As a result, our belief in the character suffers and our patience with his at times insufferably gracious renaissance personality wanes.
Yet even with the plot’s uphill battle for enjoyment, Gordon’s direction manages to pull some very intriguing moments out of the fire. Most notable is the performance of Melissa Molano as Caroline, who at every turn rises above her character’s "tough girl turned soft" pedantic arc and instead gives us a character with some depth. Whether she's playing cantankerous, downright angry, excited, hopeful, vulnerable or just plain sad, Molano injects some much-needed humanness into Caroline that has us rooting for her despite the tedious circumstances. Her terrific air piano skills while lip-syncing Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” are alone reason enough to applaud this versatile performer.
Mateo Mpindui-Mott as Anthony has a tougher time figuring out who his character is. Goofy and nerdy one minute, then cocky and cool the next, Mpindui-Mott’s performance feels as if it’s on shifting planks for much of the first half of the show. But once Anthony reveals he was witness to a tragedy just hours before showing up at Caroline’s door, Mpindui-Mott seems to settle into a more solidly believable character that we can at least pay attention to without feeling like we’re watching multiple personalities.
The only other thing mentionable here without tipping my hat too far is the set design, by John Young, which depicts Caroline’s bedroom – the play’s setting for 99.9 percent of the play. Swathed in shades of mauve and turquoise, the decor hardly looks like the bedroom of a modern teen. Yes, there are computers and cellphones and wireless speakers thrown in (technology is one of the jokey points in the show, namely how Caroline can’t live without it and how Anthony wants her to turn off), but a couple of tech gadgets do not a teen’s room make. Anthony remarks that Caroline's room is cool because it doesn’t look like the girls' rooms he’s seen before. More correctly, he might have said that it doesn’t look like a girl’s room from anytime after the mid-'80s.
So this brings us to a point where I can’t say much more about what transpires onstage. I omit the twist to be a good sport and let the surprise stand, but it must be noted that it pains me to do so since the ending is the best and perhaps only truly rewarding part of this play. One that beautifully brings Whitman, the odd characterizations of Caroline and Anthony and the hackneyed sharing moments into clarity for us.
I will also note that the performance I saw was the last preview eve before opening, so it’s quite possible that the production folks are still tweaking some rough patches to make this a more polished play than I saw.
However, more polished or not, I’m fairly sure my feeling would be the same. Seventy minutes of a play that feels disingenuous, tiresome and stuffed with recited poetry is a lot to ask of an audience for a killer ten-minute ending. Consequentialism in the theater can make for an exciting experience, but in this case, unfortunately, the ends simply cannot justify the means.
I and You runs through May 22 at at Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway. For information, call 713-527-0123 or visit stagesthreatre.com. $21-$54.