Entertainment » Theatre

i don't know where we're going but i promise we're lost

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jul 31, 2015
Aaron Piracini, Brian Ott, Emily White,and Alec Shiman star in 'i don't know where we're going...' conniving through Aug. 16 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre
Aaron Piracini, Brian Ott, Emily White,and Alec Shiman star in 'i don't know where we're going...' conniving through Aug. 16 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre  (Source:Michael Navarro)

MJ Halberstadt's new play "i don't know where we're going but i promise we're lost" is a family drama that's marked by sadness and anxiety, elevated by poignance, and enlivened by rough-housing humor. You won't need three hankies -- not even one, because that's not where the play wants to take you. But you may well find yourself completely absorbed from the opening strains of the original score, created and performed live by Boston indie band COVEY, and sent away in a reflective state of mind. (Look for COVEY's debut EP, "Haggarty," in the fall.)

As the play begins, nineteen-year-old Annie (Emily White) is showing a run-down house in Boston's South End to her boyfriend Devon (Brian Ott), also nineteen. She's chipper and capable; he's affable and interested in the beer that's been sitting in the refrigerator for months, ever since Annie's great-uncle died. It turns out that Devon and his younger brothers need a place to live for free. The landlord doesn't know about Annie's great-uncle having died -- and the landlord is abroad anyway -- so it's easy to maintain the illusion, on paper anyway, that the old man is still residing there while the three boys move in.

Aaron Piracini  (Source:Michael Navarro)

Devon's brothers are sixteen-year-old Josh (Aaron Piracini) and twelve-year-old Ty (Alec Shiman). Bit by bit, details about their situation emerge: The three have essentially run away from home to escape an intolerable life with their parents. But life on their own isn't going be a party. It's not long before tiny cracks in their resolution begin to appear: As the older brothers pool their wages and carefully plan their purchases and cash expenditures, Josh gripes that things back with the 'rents were "ten times easier," even if life on their own is "ten times better."

The dialogue, which is structured to be as natural and matter-of-fact as possible, offers twin hooks of mystery and sympathy, but it's the performances that really capture the imagination and seal the deal. These young actors layer youthful exuberance with adult cares undertaken too early. Chief among them: Youngest brother Ty has been seriously ill. He's better now, but what if his still-fragile health takes a turn for the worse?

This is a portrait of already-vulnerable people in perilous times who are doing their best to adapt and stay upbeat. They don't always manage. Hard, too, is the sense that the brothers are ill-equipped for virtually every aspect of their new lives and, in some ways, constitutionally unsuited to overcome the hurdles involved in just trying to survive. For her part, Annie also comes up against limitations: She does her best to be supportive, but her life is so fundamentally different from that of Devon and his brothers that she has little sense for just how challenging their lives have become.

Emily White and Alec Shiman (front); COVEY frontman Tom Freeman (background)  (Source:Michael Navarro)

Halberstadt's script lets us imagine all sorts of horrible things lurking in the siblings' past, and gives just enough of a hint as to serious -- even tragic -- repercussions out in the wider world to the brothers having run away. More immediate are the household's tensions and resentments, which are nimbly sketched out; we get a sense, from the moments of irritation that we see, of an entire architecture of strained family dynamics. Halberstadt shrewdly refuses to get bogged down in things we can surmise, and the story moves briskly through a summer season filled with both liberation and uncertainty.

But autumn awaits at the end of that summer, and life has even harder lessons in store for Devon, Annie, and the younger boys. Can they keep their family together as the ride gets rougher?

COVEY's music sets the tone, washing through the play like watercolor, with blue being the predominant shade. The scenic design by Michael Navarro depicts a back yard, complete with garden plots, plastic patio table and chairs, and a beat-up grill. (There's also an old-style school desk perched up above, a clever bit of visual shorthand.) It's a good choice: Setting this kitchen sink drama indoors would have invited claustrophobia. The intimation of open space -- and the way the play unfolds over a span of months -- deftly creates a sense of expanse, a canvas large enough to accommodate the play's themes and the scale on which the characters develop. Alex Fetchko's lighting design enhances both the sense of open space and time's passage.

As has been the case with other BTAT productions, I instantly forgot that this is a "teen" theater company, and didn't remember it until I looked at the program later on. Nothing here feels amateur, and a drama that might have easily turned cloying is given shadings of tartness under the hand of director Jack Serio so that the play's full impact cuts through the fence and lands right on your solar plexus. There's a sense of rawness here, and a willingness to delve into emotional terrain that might well depend on the company's youthful energy. May BTAT hold on to that.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

Comments on Facebook