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A CurtainUp Review
I and You
By Charles Wright

The poem is about . . . how the body is beautiful. Despite pain and death and broken stuff, there's still life, and I thought you'd . . . appreciate it.— Anthony discussing Leaves of Grass with Caroline
i and you
D. White as Anthony and Kayla Ferguson as Caroline (Photo: Carol Rosegg) Photo Credit
Lauren Gunderson's I and You features colossal surprises — the kind of surprises that can't, in good conscience, be disclosed in a review.

At the outset, I and You appears to be a simple, schematic two-character play. Caroline (Kayla Ferguson) is a high school student confined to home study while waiting to be assigned a liver for transplant. Anthony (Reggie D. White) is a classmate who shows up unexpectedly to collaborate on a project for English class. Their project concerns Walt Whitman's use of pronouns in Leaves of Grass and employs poster board and a lot of images from the internet. And it's due tomorrow.

Through the character of Anthony, who's besotted with "Song of Myself" (the initial section of Leaves of Grass), Gunderson invokes Whitman's faith in the integrity of mystical experience and conviction that sorrow and joy, tragedy and humor, pain and ecstasy are inextricably bound together in human existence. The skeptical, misanthropic Caroline wants no part of her ebullient classmate's defense of Whitman's capacious view of life.

As the play's first scene advances, mysteries pile up: Why have these schoolmates not met before tonight? How can Caroline not know that she has been assigned to work on a project with Anthony? Why doesn't Caroline's mother, ostensibly at home, not respond to the daughter's repeated calls?

Things get stranger: Anthony reveals that, earlier in the day, something horrifying happened at an after-school basketball game in which he played; yet his focus on the English project hasn't been affected negatively by the potentially traumatizing event he recounts. Gunderson's narrative reaches an apex of anti-realistic weirdness when Caroline, who didn't know who Whitman was at the start of the play, recites numerous lines of "Song of Myself" without consulting the text and offers a cogent analysis.

Gunderson draws her clashing adolescents in bold strokes with little intricacy. Caroline is bellicose (until she's not); Anthony's all charm. Ferguson and White do a laudable job with what they're given. But the characters lack dimension; they're largely functionaries of Gunderson's narrative conceit (discussion of which is barred by this review's anti-spoiler policy).

Gunderson writes believable, if sometimes pedestrian, dialogue. Each scene is neatly constructed; but the most striking aspect of the whole is the the ex machina device with which Gunderson ties things up. Audience members are bound to differ as to the effectiveness of this narrative switcheroo. It's not downright cheap, but it's not fully earned either. (It's reminiscent of a blockbuster movie of the late 1990s.) Considering the discontinuity of the beginning of the play and its conclusion, one is likely to feel that Gunderson takes a long time getting her characters to their destination and that the payoff, though superficially touching, isn't as satisfying as it ought to be.

I and You, efficiently directed by Sean Daniels, has arrived in New York from the Merrimack Repertory Theater in Lowell, Massachusetts, where Daniels is Artistic Director. Especially noteworthy is Michael Carnahan's scenic design, which is deceptively simple at first glance. Carnahan has created a bedroom for Caroline that's ideal for the narrative unfolding against it. (The same can be said for his stage set for Dominique Morriseau's Skeleton Crew, currently running at Atlantic Stage 2). The design reflects a housebound teenager's notion of comfort, with electronics, stuffed animals, volumes of young adult fiction, and a vast collage of pop-culture images across the walls. Late in the play, in tandem with a narrative thunderbolt from the playwright, Carnahan transforms the stage in ways that are unexpected and just right for the dramatic material but that can't be detailed here.

I and You received the Harold and Mimi Steinberg/ATCA New Play Award, bestowed annually by the American Theater Critics Association; and the script was a finalist for the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. It's likely to have a long life in theaters around the country and as audition and acting-class material.

I and You by Lauren Gunderson
Directed by Sean Daniels
Cast:  Kayla Ferguson (Caroline) and Reggie D. White (Anthony)
Original music by Duncan Sheik
Scenic design: Michael Carnahan
Costume design: Jennifer Caprio
Lighting design: Brian Lilienthal
Sound design: David Remedios
Production Stage Manager: Raynelle Wright
RunningTime: 90 minutes, no intermission
Produced by Merrimack Repertory Theatre (Sean Daniels, Artistic Director, and Elizabeth Kegley, Executive Director) 59E59, 59 East 59th Street between Park and Madison Avenues
  From 1/15/15; opening 1/27/16; closing 2/28/16
Tuesdays through Thursdays at 7pm; Fridays at 8pm; Saturdays at 2pm and 8pm and Sundays at 3pm
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a 1/21/16 press preview
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