By Manning Harris
“It’s just so hard staying popular,” teenage Dora chirps with acerbic irony in Synchronicity Theatre’s new play “The Storytelling Ability of a Boy,” by Carter W. Lewis, running through November 21.
When Producing Artistic Director Rachel May chose this play months ago, she could not have known that an 18-year-old boy would walk to the center of New York’s George Washington Bridge and take his own life, or that a rash of teenage suicides would currently be dominating the headlines, or that bullying, intolerance, and perceived worthlessness among teens would be topics of national discussion.
But now life is imitating art—or vice versa—in a deeply dismaying and tragic fashion (and I’m not implying there is suicide in “Storytelling.”)
Since Synchronicity is known for having a social conscience, it is perhaps appropriate that they are shining a light on this subject, as Ms. May comments in the program notes.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” writes Joan Didion, and this could be the credo of young Peck (Jason H. McCarthy David), who literally recites his life (with verbal embellishments) as it occurs. His usual audience is his best friend Dora (Lily Chambers), and she “gets” him as no one else does, except perhaps Caitlin (Joy Brunson), his teacher. The three of them comprise the entire cast. They all coexist at a large high school which is anything but welcoming to those who are “different”: gifted, gay, odd, or individualist in any meaningful, visible way.
Peck seems at first to be the more ticklish “problem child”; that is, until Dora staples her hand to the wall at high school. That must hurt, Dora. “YOU THINK?” she retorts. Both these teens are among the walking wounded, and Caitlin (the teacher) tries to help them; but then all sorts of indecipherable sexual tensions pop up among the three of them. This sort of thing (sexual experimentation) is not unusual among teenagers, as they try out their sexual identity test kits, as it were. But the inclusion of Caitlin in this game muddies the waters and is needlessly puzzling and distracting. This is, of course, the playwright’s doing. He gives us, however, some complex, exhilarating language.
The high school seems a particularly threatening place: At one point Dora observes that if you attempt to bring peace in a time of war, you’ve had it. Then she dryly points out that that is the football stadium’s logo, and it’s by Machiavelli.
Peck and Dora are defiant and unrelenting and very in your face, and they are piteously vulnerable. The roles are difficult and demanding, and Synchronicity is the first company to use real teenagers. This is a risk, yet it seems the only sensible thing to do—if you can find the right people. Both Ms. Chambers and Mr. David are earnest, intense, and admirable; but it seems that Ms. Chambers has had a bit more experience, and it is telling. Some of Mr. David’s lines are lost, and time will undoubtedly improve his articulation and vocal variety. Both actors are talented, but both could slow down a bit. Ms. May has instilled her actors with the confidence to perform these roles with subtlety and panache.
Ms. Brunson is quite fine, making the most of a rather oddly written role. Lighting is by Jessica Coale; sound design by Jess Wells; costumes by Landi C. McAdams.
Concerning the often beleaguered teens in our country: Some very highly-placed officials are telling them (about bullying) that “It gets better. A better tomorrow awaits.” We all pray they are right.