Review of I and You by Lauren Gunderson, on stage at the Fountain Theatre.
I and You begins with a scenario that is beautiful in its simplicity and both poignant and funny in its staging: A sick, shut-in teenager named Caroline receives a visit from classmate Anthony to complete a class assignment on Walt Whitman. Throughout their time together, they enact an antidote to the sort of insidious alienation Pink Floyd so vividly charted in The Wall. Both Caroline’s fortress and Anthony’s easy-going façade are dismantled brick-by-brick until they spark a relationship. English teachers everywhere would rejoice to learn that this bond is achieved via the teens’ growing appreciation, and eventual endorsement, of classic but still living poetry. No more banging hearts against a mad bugger’s wall. From 150 years ago, here comes Whitman, who triumphantly declared …
I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round
his or her neck for a moment, what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight, I
swim in it as in a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them,
and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well.
All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.
If performance quality was the sole criteria by which I could recommend a production, Jennifer Finch and Matthew Hancock would set the standard. These young actors bring raw emotive power to their roles and, in the process of commanding audience attention, mark themselves as talents to watch out for. Similarly, Robin Larsen’s direction and Tom Buderwitz’s set design are on-point for the intimate stage of the Fountain theatre. Yet they are ill-served by playwright Lauren Gunderson, who undercuts her scenario with the sort of twist ending that suggests she surrendered the script to M. Night Shyamalan. The play’s ending isn’t merely a tolerably unpersuasive resolution of the kind Jon Rabin Baits offered in Other Desert Cities. While dissatisfying, an off-key ending isn’t the worst a play can suffer. No. Gunderson saddles the play with metaphysical baggage it neither needs nor can support, a solution in search of a problem. In pop-culture terms, it’s like the Wachowski siblings tacking conceptually overwrought sequels to an original film that needed none. Or, to borrow from Whitman, it’s like singing the body electric only to
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
One can argue the extent to which Gunderson does or doesn’t present insight that is sensibly consistent with Whitman’s words. For a moment near the end, it seems as if she fully captured the poet’s exuberance and passion for life along with his words’ capacity to inspire –until her jarringly morbid ending dispels that impression. At the very least, her ending drains poetic metaphor of its power by rendering it with a literal-minded twist. In dramatic terms, I would think the revelation, based on a premise that horror films have used to fearful effect, would lead to anguish or confusion for the characters rather than hope. But worse than that is how the ending, as with any ending that calls narrative reality into question, leaves us with no definitive portrait of the characters. It’s as if Gunderson lacked trust in her scenario’s inherent drama to let the narrative come to a natural rest – the homework assignment’s completion – and fading to black with a wistful silence that speaks more loudly than artifice. It’s a shame, because up until the plot twist of the knife I and You stands out as extraordinarily engaging theatre.
I and You by Lauren Gunderson. Directed by Robin Larsen. Starring Jennifer Finch and Matthew Hancock. On stage at the Fountain Theatre until June 14, 2015. For tickets and information, visit www.fountaintheatre.com/event/i-and-you/