Coming-of-age plays, like the characters in Anna Kerrigan’s
The Talls, now being presented by Second Stage Uptown at the McGinn Cazale Theatre, come in all shapes and sizes. In this case, despite Kerrigan’s intelligence, some sharply observed details and an obvious desire to explore complex issues, the 80-minute work, unevenly directed and cast by Carolyn Cantor, is a bit small for its subject matter and ends up seeming somewhat underwritten.
Kerrigan has set her work in 1970, in the Oakland, California home (nicely designed by Dane Laffrey) of the Clarkes, a seemingly prototypical middle-class family, concerned with school sports, homework, and the like. But it takes mere minutes to realize that while 17-year-old Isabelle (Shannon Esper) may be unusually tall like her three siblings, she’s no typical family member. She’s wearing Birkenstocks with her Catholic school uniform — and no bra, as we discover when she flashes 16-year-old brother Christian (Michael Oberhalzer) just to put an end to some adolescent bickering.
Isabelle, who is heading to Brown, clearly sees herself as a budding radical — full of talk about peace, love, and understanding. She listens to Marianne Faithful and wants to go see Jefferson Airplane. And she doesn’t want to give her school’s valedictorian’s speech, because she claims they won’t like what she has to say. Of course, it’s a bit unclear how much of what she espouses is sincere and how much is posing.
The distinction gets even muddier after she’s left alone with 22-year-old Russell James (Gerard Canonico, perfectly fine), her dad’s vertically challenged, slightly overeager campaign manager after the family has rushed to the hospital bedside of Connie, the dearest friend of mom Anne (Christa Scott-Reed), accidentally leaving their eldest daughter behind.
While they’re together, Isabelle downs some of dad’s liquor, lights up a joint, and flirts shamelessly with Russell (who gives in rather too easily), all to show how grown-up she wants to be. And ultimately, a lot of growing up happens in just one night. Esper deserves major plaudits for deftly navigating Isabelle’s complicated emotions during this sequence, as well as the rest of the play.
However, what’s truly more interesting than this budding relationship — and what Kerrigan should expand on if she takes another crack at the script — is Isabelle’s family dynamics. Isabelle talks a lot about how she’s dismayed by the coldness of her parents’ marriage; she even suspects her mom was in love with Connie, who became a nun.
But we don’t see enough of the couple together (and way too little of Dad, played by Peter Rini) to really know how true this is. Moreover, in one of the last scenes, Isabelle finally has a heart-to-heart with the tightly wound Anne — brilliantly embodied by Scott-Reed — and these few minutes are more compelling than any before or after.
Isabelle also feels overburdened by her responsibility to take care of her siblings — a point which is drilled home at the play’s conclusion — but that dilemma might resonate stronger had Cantor cast the show differently. Timothee Chalamet is adorable as youngest son Nick, but both the hunky Oberhotlzer, who does well enough as the smug jock Christian, and the extremely funny Lauren Holmes, as 15-year-old, oversensitive Catherine, are just way too old to make this set-up remotely convincing. (In fact, there’s something more than a little creepy about the scene where Christian spanks Catherine with a fireplace poker!)
Like Isabelle, Kerrigan (who graduated from college in 2004) may just need more time to find fully her voice. And like her protagonist, I suspect it’s one that will eventually be worth listening to.