nytheatre.com review by Garry Schrader
August 12, 2006
Someone has exploded a bomb in homeroom. The school was supposed to be empty, but Janey, from the soccer team, was there after hours, studying for finals. Now she's in the hospital, struggling for her life. Hauled into the precinct for questioning, the prime suspect is Sean, a computer geek from a troubled family. But Sean's best—well, only—friend, Bay, from an only slightly less troubled family, seems to know more than he's telling. Meanwhile, the TV crews have descended on Sean's crazy mother, Louise, and she's barely holding together.
Dear America, a new play by Michele Aldin, seeks to investigate the causes of "teen terrorism," and discovers the usual suspects: broken homes, dysfunctional families, the merciless high school caste system, video games, sexual confusion.
If Dear America, can't tell us much that's new, what it can do—and frequently does very well—is bring to aching life the pain behind the clichés. Some of Aldin's devices stretch one's credulity—would Sean and Bay really speak so openly if they know the police are observing them from behind a two-way mirror? would Louise, hysterical though she is, get to ramble on quite so tangentially to the media? Nevertheless, Aldin has a keen ear for dialogue, especially that difficult trick of catching the banter of teenage boys, and a deft talent for blending comedy and pathos. It's a talent that's shared, fortunately, by her uniformly exceptional cast of four, under the able direction of Lauren Rosen.
Polly Lee gives a hilarious turn as another bundle of nerves, Selina, the new woman—girl, really—in Sean's father's life. ("He calls me Seltzer 'cause I'm so bubbly," she says—an OK line delivered with an almost apologetic poignance that lets us know that all may not be well in her relationship.) Her manic efforts to connect with Sean while trying to enlist his help in chopping vegetables afford the play's most broadly comic moments, and both she and Shawn-Caulin Young, as Sean, play off each other well. Mike Berberich (who has done double duty with the sound design) is an immensely likeable Bay, his adolescent bravado barely concealing a fond sensitivity and a touching loyalty to his conflicted friend.
The more difficult roles go to Young and Patricia Randall, as Louise. Young seems at first a standard-issue sullen teen, angry and displeasingly sarcastic. The actor is adept, however, at bringing us subtly into an understanding of the character's impossible position, an understanding that, heartbreakingly, the character himself does not have.
Patricia Randell is both funny and terrifying as Louise, the monster mother of one's nightmares, an open wound of need and suffering who looks to her son for rescue ("He's my best friend!"). Her efforts to act the parent role convince no one, least of all herself. At once sympathetic and repellent, Randell also manages well—as does Berberich—the rather thankless task for an actor of having to deliver an extended monologue to an offstage interlocutor.
"Why does everyone leave me?" Louise pleads, to no one in particular. Sean needs to be able to separate, but he can't let himself be another disappointment to her. In a late scene, Louise tells Sean she no longer wants to live, and his face crumples up in agony. He has failed in a task he never wanted. Watching these two characters, bound but unable to connect, seek to hide their misery from one another is quietly devastating.