They Walk Among Us
nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
July 21, 2008
The press materials for They Walk Among Us focus so heavily on the play's teenage author, Nicholas O'Neill—who died at the age of 18 in the 2003 Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island—that one momentarily gets the impression that the play might actually be about him or that tragic event. The show's opening and closing moments—a choreographed tribute to the victims of the fire performed by a lone dancer and a video montage of O'Neill's brief life, respectively—reinforce this misperception. But, it turns out these are just the production's ways of paying tribute to the late O'Neill. Indeed, so much of They Walk Among Us feels like a memorial service to the author's memory that it makes one wonder if My Own Delirium, the producers of the show, favors that over doing the actual play. For there is a play here, and even though it shows much promise and imagination, it is ultimately the work of a novice writer.
They Walk Among Us, the first and last play written by the teenage O'Neill, tells the story of three guardian angels —Levi, Grace, and Cyrus—who are sent to present-day New York to help Adam, a troubled young man who is grappling with his sexuality. There are some potent moments here, most of which are various expressions of the play's themes. "Do not fear hope," one of the angels tells Adam at one point. In another scene, Cyrus asks a homophobic preacher how he can espouse anti-gay rhetoric in the name of The Lord. The answer: "Because you don't know God. You only know hate." If nothing else, They Walk Among Us shows that O'Neill had a few things on his mind.
Unfortunately, the rest of the play shows the author's inexperience with basic tenets of story, conflict, and narrative drive. Even though the plot seems simple and clear it can only be gleaned from the show's press release, for onstage it is nearly impossible to follow. Director Merete Muenter displays little facility for solving these problems, her staging muddling what is already murky. She also hangs her young cast out to dry with listless direction that showcases their weaknesses.
It's clear that O'Neill touched a lot of hearts in his brief life, and My Own Delirium obviously has good intentions in producing They Walk Among Us and bringing it to a potentially larger audience. But, this current production does the late author's memory and his play no favors.