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First You're Born

Phoebe Ventouras and Hanna Cheek in First You're Born
(Photo © Aaron Epstein)
In the pink apartment shared by Pis (pronounced "Piss") and rhyming sister Lis, there's a two-foot stack of wadded toilet paper that Lis calls a "snot pile" or some such. It could be said that the whimsy here is stacked just about as high as -- or even higher than -- those dried tissues in Line Knutzon's play, First You're Born, translated from the Danish by Charlotte Barslund and Kim Dambæck and including a character named Bimsy (rhymes with "whimsy"). Oh, lordy, the cutesy-pie things that go on in this 10-scene, intermissionless work! Luckily, they're occasionally leavened by a line or even a series of lines that rise to the genuinely cute. For instance, one character observes to another that "It's no good if a relationship depends on an angle of light."

Knutzon's play -- not to be confused with Lucy Thurber's earlier-this-season Where We're Born -- begins with the above-mentioned Bimsy, who dresses in the peculiar deconstructed peasant-dress fashion that costume designer Kay Lee has settled on for the play's wardrobe look. Bimsy (Alexa Scott-Flaherty) is on a park bench with boyfriend Axel (Geoffrey Arend), who's about to tell her that he's now her ex-boyfriend. She doesn't take it well and neither does Pis (Hanna Cheek), who's watching the separating pair from the pink flat that set designer Takeshi Kata has made one of three similar units in an upstage building. (Kata also designed Where We're Born; it must be very confusing when friends ask what this busy collaborator has been up to!)

Watching Bimsy, Pis is reduced to tears that may partly explain her attractiveness to Tearman (Bradford Louryk), who lives across the corridor -- although whenever he speaks, he says the opposite of what he means to say. By the way, Tearman rooms with Axel in a green environment while, on the other side of Lis and Pis, a fellow called Viktor (Rob Grace) deals with debilitating migraines in lavender surroundings. As First You're Born doles out whimsy by the heaping tablespoonful, Lis (Phoebe Ventouras) realizes that she's once again made a three-legged table when four are needed. Pis uses up most of the roll of toilet paper that she wears on a strap around her neck. Tearman convinces Axel that the two of them should throw a tea party for Lis and Pis, which they attend in flower-club-lady hats. Bimsy crashes in Viktor's pad but has to correct him on his romantic assumptions when, 24 hours later, he presents her with a one-day anniversary cake. Axel can't remember that he was the one who broke up with Bimsy and not the other way around, which somehow leads to Bimsy's attacking the rest of them with a knife and then being placated.

In his early comedies, William Shakespeare also dealt with young adult foolishness and found ways to make charming his observations about seriously silly young people in first love's thrall. Line Knutzon is obviously aware of the heritage, since she gives her play a Bardian ending -- none of love's labors are lost as the right couples pair off -- but there's nothing of substance here to play off the goofy, guileless goadings of this giddy gang. The unrelenting exposure of their gyrations has its unfortunate effect: eventual tedium. Evidently, Knutzon is building a solid reputation for herself in her native country. The program's credit page boasts that this is "the U.S. premiere of one of Denmark's most acclaimed contemporary plays." But, on the evidence of this precious piece, the author could be one of those perky women who dotted their i's with smiley faces or hearts when they were school girls and haven't yet abandoned the affectation.

The production's main appeal is its young cast. Directed with spunk by Isaac Butler, the actors each display the awe-struck gaze that late adolescents get when they've found what they're sure is the love of their life. (They also have the look of young people who are thrilled to be on stage, and that commodity can't be overvalued.) Earnestness is an undercurrent in each performance and certainly infuses Rob Grace's Viktor; even this fresh-faced lad's head of curly hair seems charged with intensity. Geoffrey Arend, who has a scarecrow's angularity and too-somber-to-spend-time-in-the-sun pallor, goes about his business as if stunned by life. Phoebe Ventouras, despite Lis's problems remembering that tables ordinarily require four legs, plays the character as the one closest to level-headed among the group and is probably right to do so.

Rob Grace and Geoffrey Arend in First You're Born
(Photo © Aaron Epstein)
Alexa Scott-Flaherty holds on to the anxious edge that teenagers acquire and don't grow out of until sometime in their mid-20s. She's amusing when, her dark eyes afire, she chases the others with a knife held high. Bradford Louryk's Tearman is so worried about what to do next that he can't even stand up straight but is pulled forward as if all the muscles in his compact body are tightening in rebellion. Perhaps funniest of them all, the ever-animated Hanna Grace plays the wet-eyed Pis absolutely straight. That may be why the line "Shit, Pis!", directed at her by one of the frustrated others, comes off as true wit and not bathroom humor.

First You're Born is presented by Studio 42 and In Media Res. The former outfit was founded by Vassar graduates and this play sure looks like something towards which Vassar alums might be expected to gravitate. That's not meant as a jibe. (Well, not entirely.) The latter group is newly organized and, a bio reports, is composed of Off-Off-Broadway veterans. It's a safe bet that they're young vets and that their involvement, like that of the Studio 42 worthies, is another happy sign that young people in love with the theater are indulging their passion even if it doesn't earn them enough money to populate Manhattan apartments as sunny as Kata's. First they're born and then, as fast as they can, they go into theater. Their enthusiasm and conviction is a cause for many cheers even if, from a dramaturgical standpoint, First You're Born only warrants a small handful.


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