VENUE #10: IATI Theater
Performance seen: Fri 12 @ 9:15 Wed 17 @ 5:45
Remaining performances: Fri 19 @ 2 Sun 21 @ noon Fri 26 @ 7 Sun 28 @ 3:15
(using the BroadwayWorld rating system of 10=effusive praise; 9=excellent; 7/8=positive with some reservations; 5/6=respectfully unenthused; 3/4=mostly negative; 2=little to recommend; 1=offended, insulted, angered)
Earlier this year I interviewed the 14-year-old software programmer whose game hit #1 at the iPhone app store, unseating the enormously popular Angry Birds. His responses were mundane, almost banal (“Was it hard to create an Android version?” “No, there’s a library for that”), but every moment of the interview was colored by the fact that he was only 14.
It would be a mistake to look at “22 Stories” without keeping in mind that it’s written by a 17-year-old, Sofia Johnson, about a pair of 17-year-old fraternal twins, Nicole, the survivor, and Natasha, who has killed herself (we learn this in the first couple of minutes).
There’s a danger of condescension to that, to be sure, so let me say right up front that this is better than a lot of plays, indeed, better than a lot of plays that are in this year’s Fringe.
But some moments, such as a scene in which Nicole’s school principal offers her extra time for her assignments and grief counseling, both of which Nicole angrily rejects, are best seen in light of the playwright’s age: The principal’s words are at once perfectly reasonable and absolutely fatuous and unbearable, and they ring true as exactly how an angry and upset 17-year-old hears and sees the world around her. The same authentic ear for words and emotion is reflected in a couple of the flashback scenes between the two sisters.
The flashback scenes comprise about a third of this 45-minute play, the remainder being a handful of scenes that move forward in Nicole’s life with her mother, her principal, and two of Natasha’s friends, and a number of speeches in which Nicole explains her life to the audience.
The division of the story into almost equal parts monologue and action inevitably results in a lot of exposition. The monologues might have been a good way for a playwright to get into a story, and it’s common in writing anything, whether it’s a play, a novel, or a personal essay, for the early drafts to have a lot of exposition and on-the-nose dialogue; the main job of the subsequent rewrites is to turn as much of it as possible into scenes and subtext.
With more active scenes, perhaps Johnson could have written herself out of another corner her play’s structure paints her into—Nicole ends up striking mostly a single pair of notes, anger and regret, and so it becomes increasingly hard for the conflicts to build as the play progresses. (Along similar lines, the characters of Maddie and Darius could have been more sympathetic—and while I’m at it, I’ll say Darius would make more sense if he were not obviously gay.)
A couple of production notes as well: The cots that well serve the flashback scenes between the sisters ill serve some other scenes, notably those between Nicole and the school principal; and items get thrown onto the floor that are hard to remove, given the absence of breaks between scenes.
I thought Alexandra Jennings did a terrific job as Nicole; my wife preferred the equally terrific Juliette Monaco as Natasha. I thought the difference between the two performances had mostly to do with the fact that though the Natasha role is smaller, it gets to express a wider range of emotion.
These are quibbles, though, in a fundamentally sound and satisfying play, and I hope Johnson feels all the pride she deserves in her achievement. There are plenty of plays written by playwrights twice her age that aren’t half as good.
[more fringe 2011 reviews here]