BOTTOM LINE: An extremely dark, funny play with almost too many good ideas, Children At Play isn’t perfect, but is refreshingly NOT safe.
Children At Play might seem to tell a well-worn story- one about kids trying to get through middle and high school. And it covers many familiar scenes of self-discovery, especially in terms of new sexual experiences. Children At Play is in many ways a descendant of Spring Awakening, a classic German play that is now perhaps better known as a Broadway musical. Somehow though, Children At Play manages to avoid many of the clichés that one might expect in this kind of story. It isn’t perfect by any means, but if you enjoy seeing work by promising downtown theatre companies, try to catch Children At Play before it closes this Saturday (November 21st).
Children At Play is a series of short scenes in the lives of a group of children, as they begin sixth grade and continue on through high school. Because it is episodic, the play never drags. Most of the scenes concern the relationships between and among the kids, their teachers, and their parents. And certain events (a library on fire, a school shooting) that might normally demand an entire play all to themselves are here relegated to a tossed-off line. My guess is that playwright Jordan Seavey is trying to be cavalier with certain “front page events” in order to highlight the more everyday experiences that are the really dramatic events in an adolescent’s life.
One of the characters is Anna, a “Chernobyl baby.” Born in the area polluted by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Anna (played by Rachel Craw) has unspecified medical problems, and periodically gives the audience “reports” (in the style of a school research project) on the disaster at Chernobyl. The set is a mixture of a school classroom and a nuclear fallout shelter, so it is clear that this Chernobyl theme is meant to be a significant part of the play. I like the idea of juxtaposing the disasters of Chernobyl with the disasters of high school, but I don’t think this aspect is developed as much as it should be. It thus comes off as one good idea among many.
The best part about Children At Play is the cast: they are all excellent, both individually and in their work as an ensemble. I’ve seen Susan Louise O’Connor in several shows, and she is quickly becoming one of my favorite “downtown” actors. O’Connor is wonderfully acerbic as Morgan Nickelfleck Gladystone, a girl who has to deal with a lot more than just her odd name. Upon entering a middle school for the “Gifted and Talented,” Morgan meets a group of kids who become her friends. I especially liked Drew Hirschfield, who plays Jeremy, a kid who doesn’t like his “talent” and wants to switch. As Jeremy, Hirschfield is open and appealing, wonderfully ordinary without being boring. Morgan’s gay older brother is Martin, played by John Halbach; in one of the play’s best conceits, Halbach also plays Martin’s boyfriend Maximillian. Halbach is terrific as he switches back and forth between both halves of a couple; the scene in which Martin seduces Jeremy while Maximillian simultaneously seduces Morgan is one of the best in the play.
Children At Play has a lot of great ideas, something that is both its biggest strength and its greatest weakness. There is funny dialogue, terrific acting, and some cool (non-speaking) movement scenes. Individually, each aspect is interesting. (The only thing I didn’t like was the use of definitions as a narrative device.) But overall, it is difficult to know where to focus. Some story lines begin halfway through the second act, and others end just as abruptly midway through act one. This seems to be an attempt at a tragic farce in which lots of crazy events happen; unfortunately I left with the feeling that these great ideas and scenes never really cohered. While I enjoyed myself, I think Children At Play would be much better (almost brilliant, even) if it were edited– not to make it shorter, but to clarify everything.
CollaborationTown is a downtown theatre company I’ve heard great things about, but have never seen until now. While I can’t say I loved Children At Play, I will definitely return to future CollaborationTown productions. There is a lot of safe (and therefore boring) off-off-Broadway theatre; whatever else it might be, Children At Play is certainly not safe, which is extremely refreshing. If you are someone who enjoys seeing promising off-off-Broadway theatre, check out Children At Play. And even if you aren’t able to make one of the remaining performances, I’d still recommend adding CollaborationTown to your radar.
(Children At Play plays at The Living Theatre, 21 Clinton Street (between Houston & Stanton Streets, accessible from the F train at 2nd Ave). It runs through November 21; the four remaining shows are Wed–Sat, all at 8 PM. Running time is approximately 2 hours. Tickets are $18, available at 212-352-3101 or www.theatermania.com. For more information visit www.CollaborationTown.org.)