Julie White and Tobias Segal in From Up Here
(© Joan Marcus)
Julie White and Tobias Segal in From Up Here
(© Joan Marcus)
When so much of today's theater is like a cocktail made up of two parts cynicism, one part irony, and a spritz of wit, Liz Flahive's world premiere comedy From Up Here -- being presented at Manhattan Theatre Club in a co-production with Ars Nova -- is like the perfect martini. Better yet, it's practically a sit-down dinner served with a fine wine. And like with the best meals, you aren't left overstuffed, since the play is just 90 minutes long.

But what truly makes From Up Here one of the best and most emotionally satisfying works this season is its generous, yet fully earned, compassion. Here is a play about the now-requisite dysfunctional family, but one that, for all their pain and suffering, is pulling itself together rather than apart.

The piece is cleverly structured to reveal character first and plot second. Kenny (Tobias Segal) is a troubled high school student who has to be carefully monitored by an adult at all times, although you won't know exactly why until much later in the play. Kenny's hardboiled and protective younger sister, Lauren (Aya Cash), is a victim of the family fallout -- but she's also a fighter. Their harried mother Grace (Julie White) is simply trying to keep hearth and home together, while her new, younger husband Daniel (Brian Hutchison) understands that he is an outsider, yet is still trying his damnedest to do right by his new family.

Entering into this volatile cauldron are Grace's long-absent, free-spirited sister Caroline (Arija Bareikis); Kate (Jenni Barber), an ambitious do-gooder who's purportedly trying to help Kenny; and Charlie (Will Rogers), a goofy but loveable high school student in love with Lauren. As these characters intersect -- often in surprising ways -- the story unfolds with a rich and penetrating poignancy that is laced with humor and, least expected of all, profundity.

Furthermore, Flahive makes sure her characters don't swerve into clichés; they remain not just original, but true to their natures from start to finish. At one point, one half-expects Daniel and Caroline to be drawn into a romantic triangle with Grace, but the play fortunately doesn't go there because, in large part, this is a work that celebrates the good in people -- even while it fully acknowledges their flaws.

White, making her first New York stage appearance since winning the Tony Award for The Little Dog Laughed, is playing a character that doesn't lean on her trademark comic shtick. Grace is real and grounded, and White is wonderfully subtle in the role -- which is designed to beautifully complement Segal's commanding performance as Kenny. Much credit is due to director Leigh Silverman for shaping the entire cast -- including Joel Van Liew in two small but effective roles -- into a virtuoso ensemble.

Manhattan Theater Club's Stage 1's exceptionally wide and deep space allows set designer Allen Moyer to create a fluid series of locations from a far-off mountain top to a large family kitchen, a high school cafeteria, and a local police station. Costume designer Mattie Ullrich captures the characters' striving for individuality, particularly with the savvy clothing choices of the teenagers.

The show culminates with a series of emotional crescendos that happen as small but powerful gestures of connection. When all is said and done, the most fundamental connection is the one between this superb play and its grateful audience.