Review: Young Camp Counselors Confront the Outside World in The Grown-Ups
Nightdrive's outdoor production is running at Theater With a View in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
After a three-year pandemic hiatus, Theater With a View returns to live performance with a programming coup: the ambitious company has imported Nightdrive's The Grown-Ups to its al fresco summer space in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Skylar Fox and Simon Henriques's dark comedy about keeping the peace amid roiling political turmoil might seem unusual outdoor fare to those weaned on Shakespeare in the Park, but this evocative and deeply unsettling meditation on the uncertainty of life in a culturally divided society more than meets the national moment.
The Grown-Ups debuted in the first flush of theater's reopening last year and quickly became a mini sensation: a micro-production performed at a secret backyard location in Brooklyn for 10 people at a time. Theater With a View's remounting — directed by Fox and featuring most of the original cast — expands the audience to around 50 people per performance, without losing any of the requisite intimacy that the material demands. If anything, the sharp satire blossoms in its new surroundings.
The bucolic countryside space, set atop a rolling hill and often so quiet you can hear a cicada chirping miles away, serves as a perfect stand-in for Camp Indigo Woods, the secluded oasis where the play's protagonists pass the summer as counselors. They're a tight-knit group, with many promoted to their leadership positions after spending years as campers themselves. To Becca (Emily Elyse Everett), Maeve (Abby Melick), Lukas (Henriques, a wonderfully frenetic presence), and Aidan (Zack Segel), it's simply home.
Given their common history, these senior staff members share a well-established bond, which is challenged by the events of an unusual summer. The arrival of Cassie (Chloe Joy Ivanson), a new colleague with a disquieting past, upsets their comfortable rapport. Of greater concern is the mounting civil disturbance caused by the most ridiculous partisan squabble imaginable: the idea that just beyond the camp's gates, citizens are taking up arms over a viral photograph of a pineapple that may or may not resemble a certain celebrity. Not unlike the blue/yellow dress phenomenon of 2015, spectators are visibly divided over what they see — but here, the wrong answer can have deadly consequences.
The counselors clock the developments of this growing danger every night as they decompress around a campfire. The audience flanks the actors as they crack open cold beers and cook s'mores over an actual flame, although there is no actual participation. Instead, we eavesdrop as these young adults balance their mounting unease at the state of the world with the typical petty dramas that preoccupy college kids with raging hormones.
Fox and Henriques nicely balance mundane transgressions and societal anxieties, proving that when you're at a certain age, the consequences of hurting a friend's feelings can be as dire as a civil war. The script and Fox's direction also nicely build tension as the counselors realize, increasingly, that they have complicated and uncomfortable decisions to make, in order to sustain the safety of their charges. The play's ironic title takes on a harrowing resonance when you realize that actual lives are in the hands of five people who might legally be adults, but who often display the same immaturity and vulnerability as the kids under their care.
The theme of growing into adulthood under the shadow of unpleasant truths is explored more fully in some ways than others. While the threat of insurgency is chilling and all too familiar — some invented plot points garnered many knowing gasps and nods on opening night — a subplot about the camp's former Native American name is introduced and quickly abandoned, as if mentioned only to score a cultural-awareness point. As writers, Fox and Henriques could investigate further the clash between a need for greater advancement and the bone-deep nostalgia the longtime counselors feel for their beloved camp. As it stands, the ancillary action sometimes feels like a spiteful spat between Cassie (who represents progress) and everyone else (who cling to memories of an idyllic past).
Yet it's easy to overlook such flaws as this finely tuned ensemble submerges you in the world of the play. As the sun began to set over rural Pennsylvania, and the sparking embers danced across the actors' faces (aided subtly by lighting designer Christopher Annas-Lee), I found myself drawn into a world both alien and immediately familiar, with people trying to navigate the uncertainty of the world in the frantic moment. The Grown-Ups is like Are You Afraid of the Dark? for the pandemic age: a woodsy thriller where the ghost stories sound all too real.