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Michael Bettencourt finds a shim-sham fest, scuba flying--and a problematic Lolita lesson--in Bridget Carpenter's award-winning new play at Trinity Rep. logo
From Fall
In Fall, Bridget Carpenter's new award-winning play, the story revolves around 14-year-old Lydia. Dragged off to summer swing-dance camp by her parents, Jill and Dog, she not only has to suffer the sight of her progenitors having fun, but also be deprived of the first three days of ninth grade, which she asserts will hobble her socially for her entire high school career. Her one escape from this awkward and embarrassing world is scuba diving, where, alone in the immensity of the ocean, she can become visible and indivisible, free of obligations and the messiness of ambiguity.

While at camp all manner of things happen--sex, an attempted suicide, a mother and child reunion, a lesson on how to do a good shim-sham--and in the end, while not all things are revealed in the world of Fall, they are, with missteps and off-rhythms, resolved. Life goes on in its soft-edged and bemusing way.

Ari Gaynor, as Lydia, the play's center, does the pouty "whatever" attitude of the modern Ur-adolescent very well, and she carries lightly the writer's heavy nostalgia for the beauty/beast qualities of fourteen-ness--what Gopal, the son of the family that owns the swing camp, describes as being "raw [and] full of doubt and wonder." As the beleaguered parents of a daughter who pushes their hot buttons like dialing phone numbers, Anne Scurria (Jill) and Dan Welch (Dog) lindy their way through the generational minefields, and it's a pleasure to watch their thickened and middle-aged bodies get lighter and delighted when the swing music kicks.

Ronobir Lahiri, as Gopal, has a nice way of following a deadpan with a beaming chaser of a smile, revealing a decent heart that, at bottom, feels affection (and no little pain) for everyone who comes through his dance classes.

From Fall
Mauro Hantman, as Jill and Dog's friend Jack Gonzales, has the least definition as a character, not because Hantman doesn't bring a charm to the role but more because the writer has made him into something of a charming villain with a touch of self-doubt; the dissonances do not quite work. Threading their way through the action as a kind Puck and Ariel are Brian Jones and Susan Boyce (Lead and Follow), who mainly serve as dancing stagehands, bringing props on and people off with a smile and a shoe shine.

The theatrics are inventive and tickling. The scuba scenes, complete with wetsuits and tanks, even have Lydia at one point being flown over the audience (engineered by Foy, of course) as she drifts through the soundless comforts of the ocean. Eugene Lee's wall of etched glass doors serves easily as home, swing camp, cliff-edge, classroom and ballroom. Yael Lubitzy's lighting of sea depths and glitter balls looks clean and smart, and Sharon Jenkins' choreography--which makes the non-dancers into credible pretenders--leaves everyone on stage looking agile.

This is not to say that the work is flawless. The episodic construction of Fall makes it difficult for any relationships to flower. Just as people reveal an intimacy or tread on darker ground, Lead & Follow come trucking through, and we're off doing another eight-count. Consequently, I found it difficult to establish empathy with the characters' stories.

Not always, of course. There is a heart-squeezing moment when Lydia describes watching a room of awkward, gallivanting adults and being amazed that they can be so open with their imperfections--something she wishes she could do to escape from her cage of cool. And Jack Gonzales' story about his mother's death, though almost too weird to be taken seriously, at least lets the play pause for a moment to catch its breath and give the audience a chance to settle in.
From Fall
But more often than not, Carpenter doesn't trust the silences, and we are hustled through a regimen of good cheer and family comedy like tourists. A former student and self-professed fan of Paula Vogel, Carpenter gives us life-lessons along the route--a la How I Learned to Drive--in the form of short disquisitions on swing dancing and scuba diving; delivered as deeply symbolic, they mostly come off sounding obvious.

But what makes Fall land its final eight-count on the wrong foot is the way she mishandles the central moral dilemma of the play: 14-year-old Lydia's sexual affair with 24-year-old Jack Gonzales. In the world of Fall, no damage occurs from this imbalance of experience and power; there is only a romanticized "coming of age" for Lydia, who, after her attempted suicide when Jack calls what she felt simply a "crush," decides never to reveal to anyone what she did and how she felt.

Carpenter clearly means to make Lydia's decision to keep her secret silent the dividing line between the child-Lydia and the woman-Lydia, who supposedly now possesses some maturity or deeper insight. But anyone with even a passing knowledge about the ravages of sexual abuse, never mind teenage suicide, can never buy this. Carpenter's decision to use a haze filter, rather than a glaring light, ultimately makes Fall a dishonest play: more interested in giving the audience lightness against the grain than letting Lydia's pain and disillusionment play itself out in all its explosions. (In this regard, also, Fall is a good deal like How I Learned To Drive.)

And the reason for this cushioning may come from a strong conservative lesson implied throughout Fall: in swing dancing, men are "leads," women are "follows"--and "follows" never lead. For example, at one point Gopal blindfolds Lydia to break her impulse to lead, as one would do with a falcon to tame it; blinded, she has no choice but to follow where he goes. The "age" that Lydia comes to in this "coming-of-age" comedy is about knowing what her place is--and that place, despite her own spirit and the entire history of the past 40 years, is to follow the man, even if that means deception and betrayal, even if that means denial and damage.

In the end, Lydia has to take the "fall," and far from being a fall towards self-knowledge, it is a fall away from her natural grace. It's a fall into a world where "follows" and "leads" are social roles, men can philander at will, and young girls must bear the weight of being a Lolita. Carpenter seems uninterested in exploring that particular "coming" of that particular "age," and Fall, falling short, feels insignificant because of it.

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