REVIEW: “This Flat Earth”
In the program for “This Flat Earth”, a broadly poignant but mostly unfocused and unrealistic new play by Lindsey Ferrentino that opened tonight at Playwrights Horizons, there is a little sticker covering the “time” and “place” section. Holding it up to light reveals that the “time” has been updated, or rather reversed, from “now” to “the recent past”.
That’s a heartbreaking metaphor for this play about a young girl preparing to go back to school following a deadly shooting. According to the playwright, on the third day of rehearsals, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida happened; then the third day of previews saw the shooting at Great Mills High School in Maryland—hence the program amendment.
Ms. Ferrentino, who is also currently represented Off-Broadway with her play “Amy and the Orphans”, did not set out to write an issue play, nor one grabbing from the headlines, it just turns out that the headlines are moving too fast. While the real specter of school shootings looms over “This Flat Earth”, this intimate play is less specifically political despite its temporal resonance, focusing instead on larger, more general themes rarely dramatized: adults structurally failing children, and children painfully becoming aware of the world beyond their existence.
I’ve been thinking a lot about systemic, inter-generational failures in the year plus since the 2016 election—the primary prompt for this play. Observing the seismic clashes between our gridlocked government overly composed by old, straight, white men and a population that's more diverse in every sense, it is hard, even as an adult, not to feel a sense of betrayal.
And so it is that Ms. Ferrentino invites us into the home of 13-year old Julie (Ella Kennedy Davis) and her single dad, Dan (Lucas Papaelias), a former comedian who now works for the water company. Here, in apartment 5D of an old building in a “seaside town in New England” in “the recent past”, these betrayals are placed under a microscope, not unlike in “Amy and the Orphans”, where a decision to place a young girl with Down syndrome in an institution echoes across decades.
Directed by Rebecca Taichman (“Indecent”), “This Flat Earth” is told primarily through the eyes of its thirteen year old female protagonist, Julie. The play builds slowly, darting in many disparate directions as it establishes relationships and conflict that climax in a suddenly surreal closing scene that is beautiful and heart-wrenching, but feels like it belongs in a different play. So much doesn’t add up. If taken literally, the play is clumsy and borderline offensive. If viewed more impressionistically, despite its realist grounding, there are good, bold ideas to explore.
Dan has done everything he can to build a positive and nurturing world for Julie. They are poor, but they get by. He makes mistakes, but, like every parent, there are some things he cannot control. At a key moment in the play, Julie learns from a newspaper headline that hers was not the first school to have a deadly shooting. While 13 definitely feels too old for this revelation, setting that aside (and it’s a big set aside!), every child has a time or experience where the cocoon of the home is pierced by the realization that no one is ever entirely safe, and that there are things that our parents, our teachers, our communities, and even our countries cannot protect us from. And then there are things they can protect us from, but fail to. It is a bittersweet awakening, a betrayal, and a universal experience so fleeting and intangible that it’s difficult to dramatize in a single moment. It rings thunderingly false here, but I respect what Ms. Ferrentino is trying to do.
It’s a harsh reality, but fetishizing the second amendment has led us to an era in which sacrificing the lives of kids is just a cost of doing business. Metal detectors and clear backpacks are a gentle concession that violence is inevitable. As Julie’s friend, Zander (Ian Saint-Germain), puts it: “it was our turn”—as if a school shooting is just a rite of passage, like prom or the science fair. Seeing the world through Julie and Zander’s eyes, hearing their logic aloud, is sad. And it’s also important. I wish the play was just sharper, and evinced a stronger (or any) point of view.
“Why don’t the grownups just fix it?!”, Julie asks, wanting her father to promise it won’t happen again, anywhere. Of course, he can’t. Their upstairs neighbor, Cloris (Lynda Gravát), an elderly, African American recluse who sits above all the action, explains to Dan that she never had children, in part because they are always “looking to you to know what to say”. Being a grownup purportedly means having all the answers, when all it really means is more revolutions around the sun. Wisdom and maturity are not inevitable, and most people, like Dan, are just making it up as they go along, doing the best they can. That’s a relatable sentiment, but it makes for a weak thesis in a play, especially one built around such visceral and topical issues.
Another plot line involves Lisa (Cassie Beck), a grieving mother of a shooting victim who hails from the wealthy part of town, who discovers that Dan has lied about Julie’s address in order to get her into a better school. Lisa inexplicably becomes a sudden villain of sorts when she turns them in; it’s a strange and cruel plot twist that feels forced and unnecessary. Likewise, the relationship between Julie, a violinist, and Cloris, a retired cellist, is another unrealistic contrivance. Julie’s lived under Cloris since birth, yet she’s startled by cello music playing at night, and the two interact as if they have just met. Virtually all the characters are portrayed as if they have no other life beyond the 90 minutes we share with them on stage, their central motives and needs so wrapped up in the immediacy of the plot that they don’t feel larger than the specific story. Like the glistening, cross-sectioned apartment building set by Dane Laffrey that’s supposed to be an old building in the poor part of town, they just don’t feel lived in.
I won’t say I wasn’t moved in the end, but that's beside the point. The surreal final scene, in which Cloris tells Julie her future, is designed, whether cynically or earnestly, to bring on tears. The themes at work and questions asked are better and larger than the play at hand, but if “This Flat Earth” serves as nothing more than a vessel for their exploration, however muddled, I suppose it has done its most basic job. That’s a letdown, though, because I sense Ms. Ferrentino is capable of so much more.
Toward the end of the play, Julie produces her never delivered, handwritten, plastic sheathed book report about Christopher Columbus—a moment that instantly brought me back to elementary school. She questions that if people once thought the world was flat, what current beliefs and actions will look absurd to future generations? It’s a great idea and question. I wonder: gun violence? Pollution? Corporate welfare? Borders?
We have our own flat earth to contend with, and a sticker in a program can’t hide us from that fact. In the meantime, “This Flat Earth”, though well-intentioned, could benefit from more development.
Bottom Line: “This Flat Earth”, by Lindsey Ferrentino, unintentionally taps into the headlines to explore what happens when a school shooting shatters the world of a 13 year old survivor; while good ideas and questions abound, the play is unfocused and unrealistic, too lightly sketching its characters and lacking a central, cohesive, and convincing point of view.
“This Flat Earth”
416 West 42nd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 90 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: April 9, 2018
Final Performance: April 29, 2018