One of the most effective ways of reflecting the anxieties and neuroses of adulthood is to show them from a child’s perspective. It’s a technique that’s reached its pinnacle in Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, and William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin use it effectively in the Broadway musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Now, Sean Graney employs the device in The 4th Graders Present an Unnamed Love-Suicide, a fitfully amusing, sometimes disturbing, but ultimately unsatisfying new play being presented at 59E59 Theaters as part of the ongoing Go Chicago! Festival.
The play imagines a group of fourth-grade students who are mourning the suicide of their classmate, Johnny. Before shooting himself, he penned a play about one horrific day at his school, which chronicles cruel bullying, awkward romance, and peer pressure, and the kids are now putting the show on as a tribute to their late classmate. Of course, we recognize immediately that these behaviors and experiences are ones we also encounter in adulthood; but somehow, when seen or depicted through a child’s eyes, they become unspeakably horrific and overwhelming.
Generally, Graney captures the sort of language that one might expect from a fourth- grade playwright. Simple phrases and sentences often communicate much more complex ideas and emotions. For example, when Johnny (Joseph Binder) frets about a warm juice box, it reflects a much deeper dissatisfaction with life. Similarly, when Sally (Stacy Stoltz), a rich, flirty, and aggressive school chum, offers him her ice-cold drink as a way of getting back at her boyfriend and class bully Mike (Tim Simons), the implications — and ramifications — are equally intense. Graney’s play also manages to eloquently express some of the confusion that Johnny experienced before death and his efforts to make sense of his classmates and their behaviors.
Unfortunately, as Graney’s play moves forward, it spins out of control. Because of Sally’s attention to Johnny, Mike retaliates against Rachel (Jennifer Grace), a girl with self-esteem issues and an eating disorder whom Johnny likes. This sets in motion a complex revenge plot even as the class goody-two-shoes Lucy Law (Denice Lee) tries to keep order — and makes advances on Johnny.
Director Devin Brain’s frenzied and somewhat Beckettian production only accelerates the unraveling of the plot and our patience with Graney’s play. Brain and Graney (acting as set designers) have the action unfold in a blisteringly white, windowless, and doorless room. Lighting designer Jared Moore uses a circus-like palette in his quickly shifting lighting design that’s meant to underscore important moments in Johnny’s play, but only distracts from them. Throughout, we sense that the production is commenting on the action, making it seem unduly arch.
This is unfortunate because the ensemble delivers performances that are much more nuanced. Each of the actors manages to evoke not only innocence of childhood but also the burgeoning adult emotions that each of the characters is experiencing. Never do we feel as if the adult actors are condescending to their pre-teen roles, but rather inhabiting them with both intellectual and emotional honesty. In the end, we leave respecting Graney’s reflection of the adult world in his grade-school universe, but questioning whether this grim depiction has been properly served.