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Jamie Carmichael's debut play catalogues the bruises that accumulate among four early twenty-somethings who wear their hearts on their Ivy League sleeves. logo
Emily Young, Eric Murdoch, Rufus Tureen,
and Catherine Gowl in Pilgrims
(Photo © Ben Strohmann)
For those who are convinced that all of Harvard's bright young graduating things head directly to Hollywood where they crack wise for sitcoms, Jamie Carmichael's 70-minute four-hander Pilgrims is welcome. Carmichael, director Geordie Broadwater, and actor Catherine Gowl -- all members of the Babel Theatre -- got their diplomas in Cambridge, Mass., and two of the show's other actors have just completed their first year of M.F.A. training at the Brown University/Trinity Rep Consortium. If there's such a condition as being simultaneously seasoned and wet behind and ears, this crowd exemplifies it.

This is Babel's first production. The group is involved in an enterprise that seeks to wrangle realistically and creatively with the difficulties that young adults face in trying to find their place in the world and their standing with each other. Dilemmas of this sort are not new subject matter in dramatic literature. Recently, the most ambitious chroniclers have been young people themselves -- and why wouldn't they be, since for them, growing pains are still fresh hell? But whereas similar plays have been mounted in the past decade, few have been as effective as Carmichael's threnody. (Maybe that's thanks to the pooled Harvard/Brown intellects at work here.)

Pilgrims catalogues the bruises that accumulate among four early twenty-somethings who wear their hearts on their Ivy League sleeves. Alvie (Rufus Tureen) is the most visibly sensitive of the quartet, and the flirtatious Lauren (Emily Young) is the most ostensibly brittle. Tamara (Catherine Gowl), who falls for Lauren's brother, an incipient spiritual master named Serge (Eric Murdoch), isn't averse to showing her own psychic wounds; nor is Serge when Tamara advances from his disciple to his live-in lover.

The focal gang and assorted associates (also played by Gowl, Murdoch, Tureen, and Young) try to sort out their sexual and psychosexual confusion with varying degrees of success. The worst failure won't be revealed here, because that would spoil denouement-approaching developments. It's enough to say that the pertinent sequence lends an autumnal feel to a play for which set designer Melissa Goldman's most arresting contributions are two large Venetian blinds on which are painted scenes of a rural autumn. Incidentally, much of the action takes place during one Thanksgiving week, which partly explains Carmichael's title; he's making a point about inhabiting new territory without the guidance of experienced elders, a map, or a reliable moral compass.

Carmichael scores most noticeably with the characterizations of his principals. The shades of angst that he presents and the precision with which he presents them earn him the adjective "promising." (While the application of that word can often sound like damning with faint praise, it isn't intended that way in this instance.) Carmichael knows who these befuddled souls are even as he demonstrates that they don't yet know who they are or want to be. The fast-paced scenes during which they confront one another, often shifting Goldman's adaptable trapezoidal blocks to suggest different surroundings, are deft and defining.

Where Carmichael occasionally trips up -- not a startling happenstance for a playwright who's still something of a novice -- is in his desire to disperse scenes so that the audience is challenged more than necessary to supply logical continuity. He also has a penchant for "realistic" or Mametian, dialogue, which leads to speeches like this one that Alvie spouts: "Do you think...she sometimes didn' you think maybe any of the guys know one of the guys she..might have been angry or..." Yes, people talk like that, but enough's enough. Also, halting the action to play out an arcane creation myth seems forced, not to say vaguely pretentious. That the 14th-century Sufi poet Hafiz and one of his best-known poems are invoked repeatedly isn't indisputably a mark of Carmichael's jejune nature; it may be an accurate reflection of his characters' literary tastes. (Does their devotion to Hafiz mean that it's all over for Herman Hesse and Tom Robbins on campuses?)

In heeding Carmichael's request that all four actors remain visible throughout the action and handle whatever sound effects are necessary or optional, director Broadwater is profusely inventive. With an eye towards keeping the doubling clear for the audience, he has the cast change costumes (by Meredith James) under Josh Randall's full lights. Broadwater's clever about how the Venetian blinds and the other paraphernalia are rearranged, although it should be mentioned that a good deal of what transpires is stipulated in Carmichael's stage directions.

Most significantly, Broadwater confidently orchestrates his young actors. First among equals is Gowl, a tall and alluring woman who infuses everything she does as Tamara with a natural urgency. Tureen's Alvie is at first a timid scholar, then an unsure relationship aspirant and eventually, as his desire for Lauren goes awry, woefully dazed. The evolution is seamless. Young as Lauren and Murdoch as Serge also have a handle on illustrating their characters' quirks, although as ultra-hip friends Kayelle and Shale they abandon subtlety in favor of caricature.

When smart kids become neophytes in the adult world, it's rarely easy for them. With Pilgrims, Jamie Carmichael accurately illustrates a number of reasons why.

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