BOTTOM LINE: A respectable production of a deceptive story that will keep you questioning reality.
Psych, by Evan Smith, was first produced by Playwrights Horizons in 2001. Although it was well-received and published after its run, it's not necessarily on the spectrum of shows that are often revived. Although the script isn't perfect (some plot points don't line up very well), it's a captivating story with interesting characters. Smith's tale of a girl who just can't please people despite tirelessly trying keeps the audience guessing who is manipulating whom.
This production, by Tongue in Cheek Theater, is a respectable re-interpretation of the script. With just one act and no intermission, the tension builds in a steady climb and keeps the audience's attention throughout. The ending doesn't give closure (as you learn to expect from the play's opening narration), but it does bring the story together in a satisfying way.
Sunny (Jake Lipman) is a twenty-something New Yorker who works as a dominatrix and wants to go to grad school for psychology. Her good friend from college, Molly (Brynne Kraynak), comes to stay with her while she looks for jobs in the city. Sunny seems doomed from the minute she starts applying to grad school: it seems everyone is out to get her despite her sweet demeanor and ambitious personality. As the story unfolds and her relationships become more tumultuous, the audience is left to wonder who is a victim and who is really, well, psychotic.
Tongue in Cheek Theater does a great job bringing the characters to life with ample conflict, especially between Sunny and Molly as their friendship goes sour. Lipman is the people-pleasing girl next door who occasionally tries way too hard; she finds the balance between kind and creepy and lets her character waver uncomfortably between the two. Kraynak creates the most believable character in the story and the audience is immediately on Molly's side as she navigates the frustrations of a dissipating friendship.
The Theatre 54 performance space at Shetler Studios is a tiny blackbox that provides an intimate experience. It's tough to produce a show that truly rings truthful though, when the audience is basically up the actors' noses. And as Psych is a conversation-driven piece (not much action) with word manipulation and misunderstandings being the basis for the conflict in the first place, all that talking and reflecting can provide a pretty inactive play. In such a tiny space, the only two things that could really transport the audience to another world are really bold directing choices or consistently incredible acting. This production, although solid, doesn't have either of the two aforementioned qualities. As a result, the play feels more like a really polished staged reading (with costumes and tech) than a full-blown production. And don't misunderstand, that's not a bad thing at all, it's just something to know before going to the theatre. You might not be able to lose yourself in the story, but you will enjoy the production regardless.
Psych is a well-written play and a really fun tale to experience. Tongue in Cheek does a commendable job presenting the story in an intriguing way that leaves the audience guessing. Director Jason Bohon keeps the pacing tight so there is always something happening to push the story further (and also muddy the details the audience once thought they knew as fact). With entrances and exits in three of the four corners of the playing space, the movement flows on stage and off and you can sort of get swept up in the back and forth of the action altogether. And as the drama unfolds, it makes it all the more fun to play along and guess what will happen next.
(Psych plays at Theatre 54 at Shetler Studios through September 19. Performances are Wednesday through Saturday at 8pm. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door and are available at smarttix.com or by calling 212-868-4444. For more show information visit tictheater.com.)