Written by Agnes Borinsky; Directed by Tina Satter
Produced by Playwrights Horizons/Page 73 Productions
Off Broadway, Play
Ran through 3.19.23
Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street
Reviewed by Emily Cordes on 3.19.23
(L-R) Ray Anthony Thomas, Pauli Pontrelli, Crystal Dickinson, Nile Harris, and Jess Barbagallo in The Trees. Photo by Chelcie Parry.
BOTTOM LINE: Comically fantastical and deeply human, The Trees probes our search for stability in an uncertain world.
Life’s uncertainty is one of its deepest truths, equally spurring awe and frustration as we embrace, struggle with, or try to guard against the inevitability of change. The transience of modern existence, coupled with the last several years’ near-constant string of unpredictable events, have thrown this principle into sharper relief, and we may find ourselves at a loss for how to greet life’s turbulence, let alone find security in the face of it. Agnes Borinsky’s magical-realist play The Trees takes a lighthearted but deep-running look at these ponderous questions, its tale of a transformed brother and sister highlighting our faulty and poignant efforts to forge meaning from chaos.
From its first moments, The Trees embraces upheaval as a driving force. One night, while drunkenly stumbling through a park, estranged siblings David (Jess Barbagallo) and Sheila (Crystal Dickinson) suddenly sprout roots, anchoring them just steps from their childhood home. Forced to adapt to this changed state, David and Sheila seek help from friends and family, gleaning supplies and protection from Sheila’s flaky childhood friend Charlotte (Becky Yamamoto), their fey, Polish-speaking Grandmother (Danusia Trevino), and Jared (Sean Donovan), David’s volatile ex-boyfriend.
At the mercy of wildlife, seasonal change, and their loved ones’ questionable support, Sheila and David become the nexus for a community of local misfits when their transformation gains public attention and townspeople seek meaning, profit, or diversion in its aftermath. Park vendor Terry (Sam Breslin Wright) plies captive audiences with price-gouged snacks and lofty business deals, while art students Julian (Nile Harris) and Tavish (Pauli Pontrelli) nurse crushes on David, and each other, as the siblings’ dilemma inspires their latest documentary. Middle-aged Norman (Ray Anthony Thomas) visits daily to ease his chronic loneliness, and errant Rabbi Saul (Max Gordon Moore) finds newfound faith in both this strange “miracle” and his nascent bond with Sheila. When developers’ plans to turn the park into a high-end mall put the siblings at further risk, and a controversial legal loophole offers as much contention as security, Sheila, David, and their friends must band together to preserve what they have built.
Borinsky’s absurd and charming script plumbs the complexities of our relationships to the world, our fellow beings, and ourselves. This comes through most clearly in the play’s emotional climate and characters’ comically real love-hate dynamic with the instability and interdependence to which its events give rise. Literally transplanted into unfamiliar terrain, and reliant on outside forces for protection, guidance, and support, David and Sheila alternately chafe under their newfound stasis and relax into it as a respite from the hollowness and dissociation of their former lives.
Likewise, the interpersonal bonds that grow around the siblings offer characters love, stability, and purpose in the face of uncertainty, and there’s a quirky pastoralism to the community they forge from raw materials and odd scenarios (as evidenced by Enver Chakartash’s neon-accented costumes, the stylized columns of Parker Lutz’s all-white sets, and Amanda Villalobos’ life-sized puppet versions of wolves, spiders, and other natural threats). Yet, as with chosen and biological families, these same ties can prove burdensome when characters turn each other into outlets for their loneliness, rage, or existential turmoil, or cast too much faith in fallible people or systems to give their lives meaning.
Although The Trees steeps itself in outlandish circumstances, several of which remain unresolved or under-explained, the play’s humor and emotional truth resonates and quells much of our disbelief. We, like its characters, struggle to relate to each other; question our faith, choices, and sanity; and fumble as we try to root ourselves in unstable ground. However, the play suggests, while our quest for security is flawed and ultimately futile, there’s an inherent beauty in its process, as well as in the homes we find or create during strange times. In her program notes, Borinsky calls on us to soften ourselves to catastrophe, and this paradox forms The Trees’ core message: only by embracing impermanence can we truly bloom where we’re planted.
(The Trees played at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, from February 12 through March 19, 2023. The running time was 1 hour 45 minutes with no intermission. Performances were Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7; Thursdays and Fridays at 8; Saturdays at 2:30 and 8:30; and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30. Tickets were $25-$99. For more information, visit playwrightshorizons.org.)
The Trees is by Agnes Borinsky. Directed by Tina Satter. Produced by Playwrights Horizons/Page 73 Productions. Scenic Design by Parker Lutz. Costume Design by Enver Chakartash. Lighting Design by Thomas Dunn. Sound Design by Tei Blow. Puppet Design by Amanda Villalobos. Production Stage Manager is Randi Rivera.
The Cast is Jess Barbagallo, Marcia DeBonis, Crystal Dickinson, Sean Donovan, Xander Fenyes, Nile Harris, Max Gordon Moore, Pauli Pontrelli, Ray Anthony Thomas, Danusia Trevino, Sam Breslin Wright, and Becky Yamamoto.