Reed Birney and Deirdre O'Connell
in Circle Mirror Transformation
(© Joan Marcus)
Reed Birney and Deirdre O'Connell
in Circle Mirror Transformation
(© Joan Marcus)
Classes in creative dramatics reveal more than talent for a group of relative strangers in Annie Baker's charming, but never completely satisfying, Circle Mirror Transformation, now at Playwrights Horizons' Peter Jay Sharp Theatre.

Led by Marty (the redoubtable Deirdre O'Connell channeling a warm Earth Mother persona), four students, including Marty's husband James (Peter Friedman in an understated but powerful turn), gather for six weeks in a mirrored rehearsal room at a community college in Vermont to immerse themselves in theater games. In the process, they share more of themselves than they might have expected, exposing vulnerabilities that they might have preferred to have kept hidden.

One-time New York-based actress Theresa (played with wounded vivaciousness by Heidi Schreck), for instance, discloses a host of details about her "toxic" relationship with her ex-boyfriend. Recently divorced Schultz (imbued with gentleness and deep emotion by Reed Birney) may not let any earth-shattering secrets about his life slip, but he does allow himself to begin a relationship with still-rebounding -- perhaps still emotionally committed -- Theresa.

The youngest member of the group, Lauren (Tracee Chimo in an almost consistently scene-stealing turn), had hoped that her time in class would result in her snagging the role of Maria in her high school's production of West Side Story. Instead, she finds that she learns a lot about growing up and letting go of some of her defensive snottiness.

For anyone who's been involved in theater, Baker's play will provide no real revelations about the power of theater games. But anything that the work may lack in terms of insight into this subject is more than compensated for by the subtle challenges it provides the performers, whose main job is to create the inner lives of their characters. These are people who, more often than not, reveal themselves through their silences and behavior during exercises, their brief non-class time interactions with one another, and through exposition that's delivered by other characters, primarily monologues in which one character relates another character's life story.

Thankfully, the performers rise to the challenge in director Sam Gold's detail-rich production, ultimately providing theatergoers with a certain voyeur-like experience. For instance, when Theresa and James engage in an exercise in transforming one-word gibberish into a conversation, theatergoers realize that the bond between them is deeper than expected. Similarly, as the class moves into final session and Schultz and Lauren engage in an improvisation which imagines what they might be like 10 years hence, it's impossible to miss the confidence that they've gained from their work in the class.