Is a 12-year age gap too much for a relationship? What if those ages are 28 and 16? Does it make a difference if the older party is a man or a woman? Scott Organ forces us to wrestle with these pertinent and uncomfortable questions in The Thing With Feathers, his onstage Lifetime movie now playing at the Barrow Group. While the production by director Seth Barrish unfolds with the kind of gasp-inducing, popcorn-shoveling relish that we usually associate with televised guilty pleasures, this play still has some timely things to add to this strange moment in our sexual culture, as we collectively walk the line between long-awaited reckoning and overkill.
Anna (Alexa Shae Niziak) is 16 going on 17 and living with her mom, Beth (DeAnna Lenhart). Anna's dad walked out on them long ago, but Beth is thinking about marrying her cop boyfriend, Tim (a dependable-feeling Robert Manning Jr.). Like most teenagers, Anna spends her time studying, going out with friends, and chatting on the Internet. She's recently been spending a lot of time on Skype with Eric (Zachary Booth), a 21-year-old college student…or so she thinks. When he shows up at her house unannounced on her 17th birthday, she quickly discovers that he's not 21, but 28 — and that's not even the most shocking of his revelations.
Booth plays Eric with the reserved self-pity that decades of romantic comedy has told us is endearing, rather than pathetic. His feelings of aggrievement become especially grating as we learn that he comes from money, and could probably be using it in more fruitful ways. Between his martyr complex and combed-to-the-side blonde hair, we get a sense that if he weren’t spending all his time romantically pursuing a minor, he would be active in right-wing politics.
In contrast, Niziak endows Anna with a blasé confidence that feels right for a character that mom says is an "old shoe" (a silly variation on "old soul"). Anna seems so mature that we're not surprised that Beth treats her like a best girlfriend rather than a daughter. That may be part of the problem considering that, as evidenced by Lenhart's mild-as-mayonnaise performance, mom is definitely the sidekick.
The play develops at an exceedingly slow boil in the first half as we watch these bland people interact. It doesn't help that the actors have a tendency to whisper, causing us to tune out during moments of exposition. Barrish stages the first scene, a 10-minute Skype conversation, with Anna positioned on her bed far upstage and the back of the computer facing downstage, creating an immediate sense of distance between the audience and the action. While functional, Edward T. Morris's two-plane set feels unnecessarily deep, but Solomon Weisbard successfully focuses our attention with subtle yet insistent lighting. Through his driving and emotional transition music, sound designer Matt Otto helps to maintain the tension of the play during blackouts that are entirely too long.
Whatever the flaws of the production, the subject matter of the play is too interesting to resist. The Thing With Feathers is undeniably provocative, even if elements of the story (which won't be spoiled here) feel far-fetched. While the juicy revelations are the main event, the play smartly leads us to reassess our biases when we consider how we would feel about this contrived situation were the genders of the characters reversed. One person's triumphant reckoning is often another's tragic downfall. Which is the tragedy and which is the triumph usually depends on how you personally feel about the involved parties.