Out of the Sandbox
nytheatre.com review by Nicole Higgins
July 18, 2009
Out of the Sandbox, a world premiere by first-time playwright Jack Sauer directed by Clayton Phillips, takes on the dark territory of abuse within the ultimate normality of 1950s suburbia, but it doesn't land us there in the mire. This is a play that asks "How do we get out of the sandbox of childhood dreams and nightmares and move on with our lives." (Quote taken from the first page of the program.) A question with no easy answers, but Sauer certainly finds them for his characters by the end of this production. The second act offers us no simple broken people. It shows us complicated people with the strength not just to carry on "hoping for a ship to come in" as past generations in this Irish Catholic family always did, but the strength to finally act, to make a change.
Through the narrator, or Speaker (as she is called in the program), we learn that Act I takes place in 1958 in a Northern New Jersey suburb. We are introduced to Mimi and Lewis, two neighborhood children (played by adults—all the children are played by adults in Act I), and we learn that a new family with children has moved in.
Of the new kids, Billy is the youngest and as played by Chris Landis is an adorable, curious, innocent, somewhat hyper kid with an endless stream of questions for his older brother Eddie, who in the way of older brothers alternately protects and provokes his charge. Older than the two boys is the well-behaved do-right older sister Lizzie. A playground scene underscoring the chemistry between the siblings is followed by a family dinner opening with a prayer. Over the cacophony of this shared meal we learn that the weary dad and put-upon mom are struggling financially, distracted by wants and embittered by some of the choices they have made.
Scenes with the children follow, and we learn the other two children are from a broken home, and that Lewis owns a BB gun, which Billy takes to with zeal until, with a slight reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, and being essentially a good Catholic boy, his conscience catches up to him. The brothers share mixed feelings about Lewis, a boy (played unstintingly by Trip Langley) who seems very enthusiastic and generous.
Events then unfold wherein one of the children has his trust horribly betrayed—I was left wanting to have had more clues regarding the perpetrator's true nature, but then that's always the way it is in life isn't it? The Speaker makes this point for us when she describes "that feeling" you get about someone. They seemed so normal, didn't they? There was that one time they did that thing, but how were we to know? In the hair-raising final scene in this act there is a moment on stage when the Speaker tries desperately to derail the course of events by rolling a baseball into the action as if the playwright himself has a need for someone, fate itself, to intervene. She becomes all of us who feel helpless, who want it to stop. It is in this moment that the Speaker's role is most effective.
Act II takes place 20 years later in the same town. A family crisis brings the siblings and neighbors back together. And as with big family events everything old is new again, the old roles and grievances are replayed. Some fantastic scenes of family life allow each of the actors to shine in turn. Lizzie (Whitney Kaufman) finally breaks the bonds of silent suffering, as she confronts her mother (Jennifer Allen) about "reality" and sparks fly off both of them. The two brothers bond in the old playground with some sweet and extremely funny moments involving Eddie (Bradley Wells), Billy, and a bottle of Jameson. In a poignant scene with the Speaker and Dad, one of the children is able to begin, through a tremendous force of will, to reimagine a life outside the confines of the past.
This play isn't just about a betrayal of trust. It isn't about the suffering that follows, but it is about finally growing up, and facing the inadequacies of care givers. And this play is about family. It's about how we need to pay attention and take care of each other. It's a play about the choices we make, which are less inevitable than we may like to think.
The scene design by Randall Parsons is simple and versatile. The costumes coordinated by Len Shaffer are spot on. The cast is wonderful. Jack Sauer and director Clayton Phillips treat sensitive material with the utmost care, but without sparing us the discomfort of the facts. This is a chilling and moving play that hasn't lost its sense of humor. The Midtown International Theater Festival on 36th Street in Manhattan is literally a two minute walk from the ACE on 34th St and 8th Ave, so get over there. There are two weeks left of performances.