New York City Theater
Second Stage Theatre
If you think adulthood is scary, try childhood. In Bess Wohl’s mysterious, frightening, touching “Make Believe,” being a kid is not only a forerunner of how one grows up in a dangerous world but how even childhood dress-up games of ghosts, goblins and things that go bump in the night take on a life of their own. Directed by Michael Greif with an eye to the ghoulish, “Make Believe” plunges theatergoers into a no-man’s land where childhood comedy bleeds into adult drama.
The one-act, intermissionless evening is told in two parts. In part one, the characters are children; in part two, they’ve grown into adults. The trick is to observe how one becomes the other.
In the first part, the four Conlee children have seemingly been deserted by their mother. (The play’s initial word is “Mom,” repeated over and over; its penultimate word is “Mama.”) They and we hear Mom only through the message she leaves on the answering machine.
Fending for themselves, the kids play games. Young Addie, (Casey Hilton), 7, talks to and fusses with her Cabbage Patch Doll. Bossy Young Kate, (Maren Heary), 10, attends to both her school homework and, standing in for their mother, gives orders and mimes putting dinner on the table.
Young Chris (Ryan Foust), 12, is a go-getter leading a secret life outside the house. A bully, he smashes Addie’s doll, hits Kate and forces Young Carl, (Harrison Fox), 5, to behave like the family dog.
The four children re-enact their family dynamic: abusive, alcoholic, philandering father, long-suffering mother, kids who tease yet, apparently, care for one another. They also like to try to frighten others by wearing white sheets with cut-out eyeholes. Those figures also haunt the second half as reminders of their difficult younger days.
In this second half, it’s adult Addie who says, “It’s a miracle anybody survives their childhood.” Gathered for the funeral of Chris, dead of an overdose, are neurotic adult Kate (Samantha Mathis), in the throes of a divorce and both anxious and fearful of talking with her still-absent mother; minor TV actress Addie (Susannah Flood) with a daughter/doll of her own she longs for but neglects; bitter Carl (Brad Heberlee), armed with a caustic eulogy for his brother. An outsider, also named Chris (Kim Fischer), a stranger to the others, has come for the funeral of his close friend.
Death hovers over the play like a sword. When older brother Chris smashes Young Addie’s doll, he cries out, “Die baby!” His mantra is repeated throughout: “Everybody rots when they die. That’s what happens. You get a choice: rot or get burned up.”
Wohl tests her audiences. Could the children have become anything but what they did? What about Mom? Why is she absent? Are our adult lives pre-determined? Must we drag our early lives behind us, like Marley’s chains? Wohl offers no easy answers.
David Zinn’s playroom set, complete with tent, toys and posters, is a marvel of nostalgia which Ben Stanton has lit with despair. Emilio Sosa’s non-showy costumes and Bray Poor’s original music and sound add to the evening’s air of disorientation.
Greif’s direction avoids making the kids merely “cute.” In fact, they give believable, honest performances. The adults undergird their dialogue with an angst born of longing, capped by Carl’s brilliant eulogy, delivered by Heberlee with poignant passion.
As Ophelia says in “Hamlet,” “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” Just as well.
--David A. Rosenberg
August 20, 2019