Aspiring playwrights are taught the use of reversal. Something unexpected happens that catches both the protagonist and the audience off guard and can lead to upending our expectations and the character’s subsequent actions. It’s also known as the “third act twist.”
Writer Lauren Gunderson has learned that lesson especially – and effectively – well. There is a twist at the climax of her “I and You” that virtually knocks the audience off its seats. It’s both a Wow! and a Whoa!
The production runs through May 15 at Penguin Rep Theatre in Stony Point (less than 15 minutes from Bear Mountain Bridge in Rockland County).
It’s not as if Gunderson’s twisty reveal is totally unique, but the considerable wallop it packs carries with it the force of what we’ve witnessed in the 80 minutes of drama preceding it. That is a testament to her artistry in shaping credible characters through free-flowing dialogue that is wise in the ways of the world. We simply do not see her sneaky ending coming.
AS SURREAL AS IT GETS
Gunderson’s characters are two high school seniors who could not be more unlike each other. Yet, as we find out, they end up soulmates in the most surreal way imaginable.
Anthony (Johnathan Dougan) is an exceedingly polite scholar-athlete who plays basketball; quotes Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (the homework assignment he is there to jointly work on); plays saxophone; and digs jazz legend John Coltrane.
Caroline (Mairead O’Neill) is a shut-in, awaiting a liver transplant, who uses texting as an intercom to communicate with her mother; cuddles, for cold comfort, with a plastic turtle (doubling as a gobo projector); experiments with smartphone-captured imagery; and digs rockabilly legend Jerry Lee Lewis.
SEARCHING FOR A SAVIOR
Most notable, though, about Caroline, is her thinning patience with a life-threatening condition, expressed in boundless cynicism about the world out there and the world in here, which is to say her bedroom, her body, her despair that time is running out to find an organ donor, aka savior.
The most pithy way to describe these characters’ mutual metamorphosis is to quote Gunderson, from a video interview: “They discover in each other this depth of friendship and a wisdom that they that they couldn’t have on their own, but together, they find it.”
Apart from a couple of moments when it felt the story could be progressing with a slightly quicker pace, I found myself engrossed, wanting to know more.
Part of that is the sensitive and canny ear the writer displays for teen angst and teen argot. Their dialogue is dotted with rapid-fire repartee and with tit-for-tat “oh yeah?”-isms.
Anthony: “You are the strangest person in the world.” Caroline: “Certainly North America.”
That quicksilver exchange also exemplifies the economy of Gunderson’s style, carving out characters and raising the stakes through their revealing conversations that let us eavesdrop on who they are and what they want.
The other reason for the enjoyment I experienced is the bravura performances of Mairead O’Neill and Johnathan Dougan. I was mesmerized by their electrifying stage presence, infused with controlled energy, unflagging focus, and the volatile chemistry of youth. They both “kill,” to use the argot of generations other than mine.
A graduate of Brooklyn College, Dougan is a member of Actros’ Equity Association (AEA). O’Neill is a senior at Laguardia High School for the Performing Arts (aka “the Fame school”) on her way to Boston College to major in acting. Judging by their work in “I and You,” I’d be surprised if they did not ascend, as their craft continues to evolve, to more prominent public awareness.
While she may not be a household name, author Gunderson has impressive credentials, notably being “one of the most produced playwrights in America since 2015.” Among her distinctive traits in “I and You” (a phrase inspired by Whitman) is the assiduous avoidance of exposition. What we learn is through organic behavior and action, not through clinical explanations of past events. Exposition is a tempting trap playwrights are taught to sidestep, and Gunderson excels at outwitting that trap.
She’s also adroit at harnessing Whitman’s work – focusing on Song of Myself – as handy shorthand for how hard it can be, for people of any age, to break through each other’s self-made barriers to emotional connection, universal comity and general soulfulness.
A MATTER OF LIFE – AND DEATH
In exploring each other, Caroline and Anthony are exploring life – and death. Gunderson reminds us that sometimes, or too many times, instead of reaching out welcomingly to each other, we put up walls that we prefer to peek through, half scared-half aware, before fully embracing the other, a rarity in these paranoid times.
Learning to be available to others – and, as Whitman poeticizes, to the self – is the journey these two take – or, more accurately, on which Gunderson takes her creations, and us (that’s a suitably vague hint about the tectonic twist that blindsides, and even befriends, the audience).
Much credit for the appeal of this production goes to director Thomas Caruso. It’s easy to see why he has been nominated for major theater awards. His practiced hand is evident in the seamless and precise – and very natural – movement of the actors. There is no forced or extraneous stage business. It is elegantly staged, with an expansive, forced-perspective set realistically depicting a teenager’s bedroom, by David Goldstein. Costumes are by Myra Oney, lighting by Martin E. Vreeland, original music and sound design by Max Silverman, properties by Buffy Cardoza. Jamil Chokachi is company manager, and Michael Palmer is production stage manager.
BARGAIN TICKET PRICES
I’ve been enamored of Penguin Rep ever since I discovered this thoroughly professional theater jewel across the Hudson, in Stony Point, several years ago. I’ve never attended a production in the very comfortable, repurposed 19th Century barn that was less than satisfying. Considering this theater’s Off-Broadway production values, at under $40 Penguin Rep ticket prices are a considerable bargain.
The top-notch quality standard is attributable to founding artistic director Joe Brancato and producer/executive director Andrew Horn.
One of their past Penguin Rep productions, Mr. Parker, will have its off-Broadway premiere at Theater Row on 42nd Street June 6-25, directed by Joe Brancato.
For more information on Penguin Rep’s very varied, compelling 2022 schedule, visit penguinrep.org or call 845-786-2873.