REVIEW: Bess Wohl’s “Make Believe” at Second Stage
How do you dramatize the reality of childhood and its lingering impact? Just ask playwright Bess Wohl whose latest play, “Make Believe”, achieves the near-impossible: capturing the world through the eyes of children and their adult selves while adeptly avoiding fantasy, nostalgia, and sentimentality.
Now thankfully extended through September 22nd at Second Stage Theater’s Off-Broadway space, “Make Believe” speaks with such an unvarnished truth that at times it is difficult to watch without bursting into tears. The Conlee kids, ages 5 to 12, find themselves suddenly abandoned by their parents sometime in the 1980s, playing house in the attic of David Zinn’s doll house cross-section set—a series of overheard voicemails suggesting their mom’s mysterious disappearance (dad’s on another extended “work trip”) in 13 short scenes that fade into one another.
With laser-sharp precision, Ms. Wohl and director Michael Greif masterfully establish the personalities of these children (Casey Hilton, Maren Heary, Ryan Foust, and Harrison Fox) and the dynamics of their relationships to such a degree that [spoiler alert] when a sudden time hop to the present occurs halfway through the play, with only one exception (Kim Fischer), the audience knows exactly who each adult (Samantha Mathis, Susannah Flood, and Brad Heberlee) entering the attic is without introduction.
The siblings reconvene for the funeral of their brother, Chris, one continuous scene where hard truths about their childhood are revealed. I won’t say more, for fear of ruining the experience of watching this extraordinarily authentic and profoundly affecting new play unfold, but the writing and the performances make it a must-see. Ms. Wohl, whose play “Continuity” I adored (read my review), is among the most exciting playwrights I have encountered in my two-year tenure as a critic, and the slice of life she so perfectly captures in “Make Believe”—tragic, funny, mysterious, and true—easily makes it among the best plays I have seen all year.
Bottom Line: Bess Wohl’s “Make Believe” is a masterful exploration of childhood and its lingering impact set against the mystery of four abandoned children and a reconciliation as their adult selves. Tragic, funny, mysterious, and true, it is easily among the best plays I have seen all year.
Tony Kiser Theater
Second Stage Theater
305 West 43rd Street
New York, NY 10036
Running Time: 80 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: August 15, 2019
Final Performance: September 22, 2019