New Teenage Play Promises New Journey, But Loses Its Way

Poster and Graphic Design by McKee Photography.

Poster and Graphic Design by McKee Photography.

On Thursday night, I attended i don’t know where we’re going, but i promise we’re lost, presented by the Boston Teen Acting Troupe at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, with hesitation and excitement.  I saw a public reading of the play last season (previously titled Annie Doesn’t Here).  The new play by accomplished M.J. Halberstadt focuses on four teenagers (or tweens), the perfect vehicle for the talents of the Boston Teen Acting Troupe.  The journey, however, left much to be desired because, while the actors delivered fine performances, they lacked the critical dialogue needed to deal with the weighty topics of the play’s themes and ideas.

i don’t know where we’re going, but i promise we’re lost opens with a family of three brothers, Devon (Brian Ott), Josh (Aaron Piracini), and Ty (Alec Shiman), moving into an abandoned South End apartment, thanks to the help from Devon’s girlfriend, Annie (Emily White).  Through the slow boil of the first few scenes, the audience learns that the boys are fleeing the misguided, authoritarian, and oppressive house of their parents, who refuse to provide Josh with the requisite treatment for his gender reassignment surgery, and to call Josh by the correct pronoun (he is not Annie – not to be confused with Devon’s current girlfriend).  These plot points are laid out with almost comical one-dimensional emphasis, providing an escape route, but not with the necessary depth, and, instead, relying on the unreliable narration of the children.  Without any adult characters, the play feels like a mix of Lord of the Flies and Catcher in the Rye, all of the teen angst, with none of the credibility.

And, throughout the play, the audience sees the repercussions of the brothers’ half-baked ideas.  Devon and Josh attempt to get jobs, Ty waters a watermelon garden with cans of beer, and Annie floats along after them, either blissfully unaware of the inevitable danger or purposely evading any responsibility.  Amidst the brother’s struggle to survive (inevitable questions of how they pay an electricity bill are left unanswered), the brothers and Annie struggle to reconcile their feelings about Josh’s gender (compared with his sex), their separation from the boys’ parents, and their attempts to be adults, along with Ty’s re-emerging illness (which is never given its necessary weight or concern). 

The results are less than satisfactory.  Each scene drags before providing some bit of comprehensible and useful dialogue before quickly fading into another “cut scene.”  Director Jack Serio orchestrates a series of wordless scenes (“cut scenes”) between Halberstadt’s dialogue which allow the characters to transition into the next moment in the play’s story, emphasizing the passage of time, fleshing-out the relationships, and coordinating the movement of props onstage and off-stage.  Though useful in their elegance, these “cut scenes” are too cumbersome to satisfy the play’s needs and merely lengthening the play, without adding to its depth – the play seemed to run over 100 minutes with no intermission.  Serio shows promise as a director in his thought and perception behind these each of scenes (wordless or not), but either his actors lack the necessary execution or he creates an unwieldy instrument that proves that “less is more.” 

Devon (Brian ott) and Josh (Aaron Piracini) in Boston Teen Acting Troupe's i don't know where we're going but i promise we're lost. (PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATT MCKEE). 

Devon (Brian ott) and Josh (Aaron Piracini) in Boston Teen Acting Troupe's i don't know where we're going but i promise we're lost. (PHOTOGRAPHY BY MATT MCKEE). 

All of the individual actors deliver fine performances, especially given the play’s weighty topics.  None of the performances are standout performances, however.  Ott broods more than annunciates, creating an inactive protagonist.  His finest moments are when he breaks from his secluded and moody personality, and he yells, lectures, antagonizes, or belittles his brothers or Annie – the playwright gave him few of these actions with which to work, leaving the director and actor lost.   Piracini shows promise in the role of the confident, young trans* teenager, Josh (f/k/a Annie), but Piracini’s continued sass and cynicism wears thin towards the end.  Piracini doesn’t allow Josh to grow into the multi-faceted teenager that we’re aching to see.  Instead, Josh seems to be stuck as a character of circumstances, constantly stranded by what people want him to be and what he sees for himself.   Shiman, an accomplished actor and capable of a more nuanced performance, is given too little, and he becomes a plot device towards the end, as his most dramatic and influential actions occur offstage.  White provides a steady performance as Annie, but she also feels like a plot device, a character for the brothers to isolate in order to create what little dramatic tension is present in the play’s story.

Michael Navarro creates an impressive set that is both evocative of an abandoned apartment, while creating some beautiful imagery of the play’s themes and ideas.  The floating desk (stuck in a tree in the play) is an unsatisfactory display, tethered and balanced like the brothers, but becomes such an inconsequential part of this story that it could be removed completely with nothing lost.  The lighting by Alex Fetchko is a good blend for the intimate Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, but sometimes tries to tell too much of the story’s changing time, delivering minimal effect.  The instrumental incidental music, provided by COVEY (Tom Freeman, Dillon Rovere, and Carson Cody), creates good effect during most “cut scenes,” but offers heavy-handed commentary during the play’s action, with each of the three band members’ instruments representing one of the three brothers.  Without giving anything away, one of the band members leaves the stage and never returns into the play’s curtain call.

The play’s concepts, including transphobia, growing up, family, acceptance, and, even domestic violence, are unconvincingly discussed, and left me annoyed, at best.  Halberstadt gives his characters so many obscene things to say and do – urination onstage will never be interesting, and, instead, feels like a cheap thrill factor – that he sacrifices what remaining humanity is left in the story.  He ignores the consequences of some of his character’s actions (especially the domestic violence) so readily that the play borders on magical realism.  The play seems to exist in this super-reality in order for Halberstadt’s dialogue and action to make sense.  While I could suspend disbelief enough to feel for the character’s difficult decisions, I do not believe that Halberstadt wanted us to exist in a world of floating desks, blockhead brothers, and dimwitted girlfriends.  Instead, I think that his characters are smarter, more resourceful, more imaginative than he gives them credit. 

I hesitate to dissect or discuss the issues of transphobia in the play.  The play, and particularly the play’s production team (with notable and polished program notes by Garrett Sager, and sensitive direction by Serio), navigates the issues of growing up trans* and living with and loving someone who is making a transition from his assigned sex to his identified gender with plenty of education and tolerance.  However, the play seems to want its cake and to eat it too.  The program states that this play’s action exists before Caitlin Jenner and Laverne Cox, but the play assumes that the difficult topic of transphobia need not be discussed nor answered. In the early 2000s, the uneducated and ill-informed people asked questions that reflected their ignorance; this reality is not reflected in the play’s actions, however. Even today, we lack some of the necessary dialogue and answers; I still struggle to understand and use the correct terminology.  The play needs to decide whether it is or is not about discussing what it means to be a trans* teenager in today’s society, or if it is about a prior time.  I understand that reviewers have gotten into trouble recently for not being politically correct in their reviews, insensitively emphasizing their own biases in their reviews. 

Perhaps some people will believe that this review reflects my own insensitivity to trans* persons, but I do not believe that I’m insensitive I want more from the play’s dialogue and story in regards to discussing what it means to grow up under these circumstances because I believe that it is a necessary topic for the stage.  My bias is not in ignoring the play’s other difficult and heavy topics, but, instead, in reflecting on the need for a play to examine and discuss the neglected topic of understanding transphobia and trans* persons.  I hope that the playwright considers not only the lack of dramatic conflict and structure apparent in the play, but the future potential for an educated portrayal of strong, but misunderstood, characters dealing with problems and issues well beyond their language, maturity, or circumstances.  Only then will i don’t know where we’re going but i promise we’re lost become found.