The MBAs who pass as creative forces in the film industry earn their millions (or lose them) by following formulas and, with occasional exceptions, essentially making the same films over and over again. It seems to work – they drive more expensive cars than I do! – but it’s so much more interesting to walk into a theatre and be surprised, startled even, by a work of imagination which confounds your expectations and challenges you throughout. Lauren Gunderson’s I and You, at the Fountain Theatre, surprised me so often, and so well, that it set a new world record.
The play starts with a bang. The lights go up and almost immediately we hear shouting. Anthony (Matthew Hancock) is standing in the doorway of Caroline’s (Jennifer Finch) messy bedroom, spouting lines from a Walt Whitman poem. Caroline’s response is panic: who are you and what are you doing in my room?!?
Anthony explains he’s a classmate of Caroline’s, and assures her he checked with her mom, who pointed him to the room – he’s come to enlist her help on a homework project about Whitman due the next day. Caroline takes a look at Anthony’s work so far and proclaims he’s very much in need of assistance.
But it’s strange Anthony would come here, for as we discover, Caroline hasn’t been to school in quite a while: she has a serious illness, has been sick all her life, and is now confined to her room, doomed to take pills on a strict schedule whenever a timer goes off. She’s fidgety, mercurial, given to bouts of frenetic energy interspersed with spells of debilitating fatigue, all of which makes her impatient, irritable, and profoundly sarcastic. When she declares she hates poetry, Anthony asks incredulously “How do you hate poetry?” With a sour face, Caroline shoots back: “With verve!”
The interaction between the two teenagers is a verbal tennis match played with ferocious energy, and escalates to warp speed and intensity before they make enough of a connection to relax, trust, and begin to enjoy each other’s company, which they eventually do. As the play progresses, they share their hopes and aspirations, and, in one magical passage, underscored by John Coltrane jazz from Anthony’s ipod, Caroline wistfully describes her dream of getting well and going to New York City. Before the evening ends, there’s even a kiss – or two.
Which proves problematic, because, you see, this isn’t your usual coming-of-age teen-agers-with-angst sort of play. Instead of turning into a gauzy romantic moment, the kiss disturbs Anthony, provoking an anxiety attack which, at first, seems puzzling. But wait: all will be made clear, in a final coup de theatre which brings the play to one of the most startling, beautifully realized, completely unexpected yet perfectly logical endings I’ve seen: it’s moving, unearthly, and completely satisfying.
Robin Larsen has directed at a crisp pace, but though the performances are propelled by nervous energy, we never feel rushed – when we need time to reflect, we get it.
And those performances are extraordinary. As Caroline, Ms Finch is utterly fearless, throwing herself into the part with gusto, making this teen-ager obnoxious and unpleasant and to hell with asking for sympathy; precisely because she doesn’t ask to be liked or pitied, we wind up rooting for her whole-heartedly.
Mr. Hancock matches her every step of the way, countering Caroline’s tenaciousness with Anthony’s almost desperate desire to please. He gets some of the biggest laughs of the evening simply by being sincere and ingenuous, but when the laughs stop and the drama begins, his intensity is every bit as sturdy as Caroline’s.
The witty, detailed set by Tom Buderwitz, wonderfully augmented by Dillon Nelson’s props and set dressing design, looks great, and its hidden cleverness is integral to the play’s ending. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting design, Jocelyn Hublau Parker’s costumes, and John Zalewski’s sound design, are exemplary.
If there’s one disappointment I felt, it was that the Fountain Theatre was only about half-full the night I saw this dazzling show, and that’s just a damn shame. As Linda Loman might say, “Attention must be paid!” This imaginatively-written, superbly acted, directed, and designed production is about the crossover between life and death, the blurring of the distinctions between this dimension and the next. Perhaps I liked it so much because that’s one of my own personal fascinations. If it’s not yours, that’s fine – just go see this thing anyway. Okay?
I and You
Written by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Robin Larsen
Through June 14
5060 Fountain Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90029
Tickets: 323-663-1525 or www.FountainTheatre.com