It’s a lonely experience to sit in a theater feeling out of sync with the responses around you. Contrary to the popular mythology about critics, it’s not fun to dislike things. It can leave you feeling Grinch-like, wandering moodily past Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! on your way to the train, asking yourself whether your heart is three sizes too small — or whether, in the words of another classic children’s book, “something is not right.”
Such was my chilly passage back towards the Q train after Lindsey Ferrentino’s This Flat Earth, under the largely humorless direction of Rebecca Taichman at Playwrights Horizons. There’s a heavy aura of seriousness surrounding the play: It takes place, after all, in the wake of a school shooting. The company has also loaded both production and playwright down with portentous commentary. Ferrentino’s “unflinching portraits … are hard to come by outside journalism,” asserts Playwrights’ website, quoting the Times, while artistic director Tim Sanford prefaces his program note with a solemn snippet of Dylan Thomas and literary director Sarah Lunnie holds the play up beside W. H. Auden’s meditations on human negligence in her supplementary essay “Everything Turns Away.” The messaging is clear: This Flat Earth is an Important Play for Our Moment. It will ask us to consider Sad and Serious Things. You Will Need Tissues.
Well, unless you’re me. Despite a gutsy performance from the talented teenage lead, Ella Kennedy Davis, and despite the intermittent “Mmm”s of significance that rippled through the audience, I left Ferrentino’s play dry-eyed and weirdly restless. I felt as full of frustrated questions as Davis’s character, 13-year-old Julie, who responds to the trauma she’s undergone at her middle school with a refrain of unanswered cries, most memorably: “Why don’t the grown-ups just fix it?!” My own questions were more theatrical in nature. What do theaters hope to achieve in their ceaseless, furrow-browed, literal-minded battle for topicality? Why do so many of the plays that center around our era’s great wounds, our terrors and deformities, feel so structurally straightforward, so easy to digest in their storytelling? Why do we continue to protest over the necessity and urgency of these plays when they so often come to an existential shrug of a conclusion? Why do I find myself asking these questions over and over again?
For a play that orbits a school shooting, This Flat Earth is almost aggressively apolitical, making it nicely programmable in theaters from here to the Bible Belt. I honestly don’t know if that’s a good thing: To me, it feels a little easy and perhaps, underneath This Flat Earth’s conventionally poignant surface, even a little cynical. After this play, I have no idea what Ferrentino has to say about our country’s repeated waves of armed violence, apart from, in the words of Cloris, the older woman who lives upstairs from Julie, “Terrible things … just, happen sometimes. All we can do is get through it.” That’s both not untrue and a pretty lukewarm thesis on which to hang a play. But that’s where this play is comfortable, squarely in the territory of “Shit happens.” Julie’s single dad, Dan (Lucas Papaelias, adequately balancing his character’s humor and careworn strain), has no answers for all her agonized whys. No one does. No one ever mentions gun laws or even mental health.
Perhaps the adults in Julie’s life think she’s still too young to be introduced to the tortuous politics of the situation. Perhaps they’re all still too upset. Perhaps they’re just bad at communicating. Whatever the case, the lack of context and response puts This Flat Earth’s inciting tragedy into a weird bubble. A significant part of Julie’s arc even hinges on her having no idea that something like this has happened before. “You must know it has,” Dan stammers in the face of his daughter’s anguish, to which Julie sobs, “Why would I know that?! … I don’t, like — watch the news!”
Ferrentino seems to be making some point about how a 13-year-old is still, in plenty of ways, very much a child. Sure. And granted, Julie is a young 13. Her best friend Xander, played by the sweet, accommodating Ian Saint-Germain, with a touch of George Michael Bluth about him, is clearly interested in her, but she’s not quite there yet. He’s at the stage of trying out the old stretch-and-yawn-to-put-your-arm-around-someone-trick, or attempting an awkward foot massage while he and Julie watch a scary movie on her bed. Her monotone response: “What’re you doing?”
But in a play that makes no effort to look like it’s set any time other than now, I still don’t buy Julie’s utter obliviousness, her look of blank shock and awe in the face of Xander’s “Duh, Julie, why do you think we’re doing drills all the time?” Ferrentino tries to make it a matter of class — Xander has a cellphone and a laptop, whereas Dan can’t afford such things for his daughter — but it’s a thin explanation. Julie’s despairing revelation has the suspect feeling of something Ferrentino wants to make happen, something designed to elicit a certain audience response at a certain point in the story, rather than a logical, honest observation of character. It’s also an unnecessary inflation of the drama: Even a child who knows why she’s being asked to crawl under her desk every two weeks — as most children, I think, tragically do know now —- would be shattered in the event of one of those drills becoming reality.
It’s frustrating because, in other moments, Julie’s in-betweenness, her teetering between child and adult, feels well observed. So does much of her rapport with Xander, which swings in and out of seriousness as the friends attempt both to confront and avoid their shared trauma. Though she herself is a very cute kid, Davis isn’t playing a cute kid, and that willingness to find her character’s meanness is appealing. She has a sense for the ways in which insecurity, pain, and fear can make children — can make all of us — behave like self-centered little jerks sometimes, can make us ball up and show our spikes to the world even when we most want to reach out.
In a program note, Ferrentino remembers discovering a journal from 2001, when she was 13, and thinks back to how, at the time, she was convinced that an off-hand remark written in that diary had caused the events of September 11. Julie is gripped with a similar unreasonable, unshakable, thoroughly preteen kind of guilt: She didn’t like one of the girls who was killed in the shooting. She found the wealthy, well-dressed, more grown-up Noelle “really stuck up” and even “kinda started hoping something bad would happen to her” — so she, Julie, must be responsible. “What happened at school could be my fault,” she eventually blurts out to Lisa, Noelle’s grieving mother. (Cassie Beck is working hard in this particularly unenviable part: She’s got to spend 90 minutes being broken by grief and, in another forced turn of events involving, of all mundane plot twists, address fraud, to function as the play’s villain.)
There’s real pathos in Davis’s performance and a feeling of lived emotional truth to Julie’s panic. But much of the rest of This Flat Earth feels less visceral and more consciously writerly. Ferrentino knows how to press familiar psychological buttons and score along established emotional arcs. The play will start and end with the same plaintive line; there will be an explosive outpouring of stored up, sidestepped fears and feelings by the central character in the story’s penultimate scene; the title will be spoken in a thematically significant moment; there will be a wise old character living upstairs so that someone, ultimately, can provide Julie with a few cathartic answers in the form of a magical realist monologue underscored with some heartstring-plucking Zoë Keating. (A skilled cellist, Christine H. Kim, provides the live accompaniment, which until late in the play consists entirely of Bach’s ubiquitous Cello Suite No. 1.)
The problem with these devices is that — like Xander’s yawn-and-hug gesture, or like choosing one of the most overused pieces of music in the classical canon as the heartbeat of your play — they feel unexamined. With the casting of Lynda Gravátt as the old lady upstairs, the character of Cloris (a former cellist with fumes of Sean Connery in Finding Forrester) even wanders unsettlingly close to Magical Negro territory. Ferrentino’s script notes that the play’s cast “can be any race and should absolutely reflect some diversity in this world,” and Gravátt herself is a wry, solid presence. Except, if you’re Taichman and team, maybe don’t set things up so that you have a sagacious older black lady mystically breaking the fourth wall in order to straight up tell the future of your young white protagonist.
This Flat Earth takes its title from a book report Julie wrote on Christopher Columbus, a report she never got to deliver because of the shooting. In it, she writes about how we look back now and laugh at the ignorance of our ancestors — case in point, their belief that the Earth was flat (never mind, I guess, that quite a number of people still seem to believe this today). “Everybody was just always asking dumb stupid questions,” writes Julie, but “what’re the questions right now that in the future people will laugh at us for not answering?” I posed a few at the beginning of this review. Here’s another: What’re the plays right now that people will look back and actually remember us producing? Whatever they are, I think they’ll be rounder, riskier, richer than This Flat Earth.
This Flat Earth is at Playwrights Horizons through April 29.