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Children at Play

Susan Louise O'Connor gives a captivating performance in Jordan Seavey's fascinating yet frustrating play about teenagers.

By New York City
Susan Louise O'Connor
in Children at Play
(© Jeanette Orlic)
Susan Louise O'Connor
in Children at Play
(© Jeanette Orlic)
Toxic parents, insensitive teachers, and manipulative friends prove to have as great a fallout on a group of children as the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Jordan Seavey's simultaneously fascinating and frustrating black comedy Children at Play, now being presented by CollaborationTown at The Living Theatre.

Seavey takes theatergoers through the junior and senior high years of five young people, who transform from precocious, but still generally innocent, kids into jaded and frightened young adults. Along the way, they encounter principals who wearily offer hollow truisms and empty threats rather than leadership or inspiration, as well as sexually predatory teachers. (Jay Potter and Jennifer Dorr White effectively, and sometimes shrewdly, play all of the adult figures in the show.)

For Morgan (the thoroughly captivating Susan Louise O'Connor), the difficulties that she encounters at school are only exacerbated by her life at home. Her parents -- always able to put on a giddy show of happiness for her friends -- are really bitter, and her father is particularly cruel to his flamboyantly gay, college age son Martin (John Halbach). The combination of family life and the world of school, combined with the onset of puberty, send Morgan down a frightening path of self-destruction.

It's a familiar tale which Seavey somewhat invigorates with the presence of Anna (hauntingly played by Rachel Craw), Morgan's schoolmate who hails from Chernobyl. Throughout the play, she describes, sometimes in painful detail, the disaster and its repercussions for the Russian people. Another interesting twist that Seavey provides is the introduction of Martin's boyfriend, Maximilian (also played by Halbach). The double casting, and the frequent comment on the two men's resemblance to one another, provides an insightful glimpse into the narcissism of youthful love.

Unfortunately, the cunning double-casting -- and Halbach's deliciously high-blown performance -- are undermined by Seavey's ill-conceived plotting that puts the two guys into romantic situations with Morgan and her best friend, Jeremy (played with sweetness and subtle force by Drew Hirschfield). There are indeed laughs to be had at watching Halbach veer from character to character as scenes with the kids unfold, but it's a gimmick that rapidly grows stale. Eventually, it destroys the poignancy of the hurt and betrayal that the kids feel when their romances go sour.

This combination of broad comedy and heartbreaking teen drama is actually felt throughout the play, but director Scott Ebersold never manages to find the right tone in his overly rushed staging. His inability to balance the play's dichotomies is perhaps most noticeable with the caricatured characters of Lacey (Boo Killebrew) and Lancelot (Geoffrey Decas), a pair of hyperactive overachievers who are consistently cloy.

Thankfully whenever the play or production flags, O'Connor is on hand to invoke a laugh, or perhaps a wince, with a beautifully timed gesture or cuttingly acerbic line reading. The actress infuses the character with a fiery coolness that makes even some of the most predictable aspects of Seavey's play sting.


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