Bess Wohl’s daring, mysterious brand-new play is a comedy of underparenting and a tragedy the selfishness. Or is it the other way around?



From left, Samantha Mathis, Susannah Flood and also Brad Heberlee together siblings revisiting your childhood playroom in “Make Believe.”Credit...Jeenah Moon for The brand-new York Times

Make BelieveNYT Critic's PickOff Broadway, Drama, Play80 min.Closing Date: Sept. 22, 2019Tony Kiser theater at 2nd Stage Theater, 305 W. 43rd St.212-246-4422

The playwright Bess Wohl absolutely likes to make things an overwhelming for herself. In “Small Mouth Sounds,” she breakthrough hit, she limit her personalities to a quiet retreat, depriving lock of dialogue and thus eliminating among the tentpoles that drama. (The story, quite magically, stayed aloft.)

More recently, v “Continuity,” she collection out come layer not compatible genres — a Hollywood backstager and also an eco-sermon — on the ago of the title pun. (It collapsed.)

So naturally she’s currently written a play that paris in the challenge of a theatrical ban so an easy it’s all yet engraved in the classic W.C. Fields one-liner: “Never occupational with animals or children.” for the first 40 the its 80 minutes, “Make Believe” is nothing yet children. Four of them.

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And one thinks he’s a dog.

Happily, the toughest constraints regularly elicit the strongest workarounds, and also that’s the instance here. However “Make Believe,” which opened up on Thursday at 2nd Stage Theater, is no stunt, also if the production, command by Michael Greif in ~ the peak of his form, is a slick machine, honing and angling every casual minute to assistance the concept.


Fittingly that achieves that totally within a set (by David Zinn) illustrating an attic playroom, complete with art supplies, a clubhouse fort, a hideous Cabbage job doll and also a toy kitchen. Over there in the mid 1980s, the 4 Conlee siblings, periods 5 through 12, take hilarious refuge indigenous the actual world below by compulsively re-creating the in your games. End “dinners” of plastic food, and also in debates that blur the line in between childish bullying and also adult fury, they borrow and repurpose their elders’ clichés.

“What in the hell’s surname is this?” roars Chris, the oldest, and thus play father, as he stares in ~ the “meat loaf.”

“How to be I claimed to execute my homework with this infernal ruckus?” shouts 10-year-old Kate, playing mother. “Cease and also desist!”


Why they and Addie (who is assigned the function of small Miss) and also Carl (the dog) spend so much time in the attic over the food of numerous days is at an initial hard to discern. Ms. Wohl frameworks the very first half of “Make Believe” as a collection of 13 brief scenes that dissolve time and genre and keep girlfriend guessing. The only real-world information provided comes in code: as soon as the phone rings downstairs, the youngsters lie with their ears pressed to the floor come make the end the messages on the comment machine.


The story castle (and we) begin to placed together from these messages no pretty. I won’t damn it except to say the what at first seems to it is in a nostalgic comedy that underparenting isn’t. The children play isn’t idle or fantastical; in fact, we progressively realize, at some suggest it stopped being play. When Chris mirrors up with a bag that groceries — ketchup, bacon, Twizzlers — they aren’t plastic. How did he get them?

Despite always being several steps behind the plot — a wonderful and rare feeling — we gain to understand the Conlees an extremely well. Defying Fields, Ms. Wohl has actually chosen not only to work with kids but additionally to count on them as expressive actors. She has come close to the love of a truth about childhood: they know just how to “play” others even if they can’t play themselves. In which method Ryan Foust (Chris), Maren Heary (Kate), Casey Hilton (Addie) and also Harrison Fox (Carl) are both adorable and terrifying.

And then, in a beautifully regulated effect, lock disappear; 32 year elapse and Ms. Wohl moves into dramatic overdrive there is no stripping gears. We are now firmly rooted in a particular moment — a memorial service, despite it’s not clear who — and also in a new genre. The second half of the play is one long, constant scene, booby-trapped v surprises.


In it we meet 4 adults through the exact same names as the vanished children: Kate (Samantha Mathis), Addie (Susannah Flood), kris (Kim Fischer) and Carl (Brad Heberlee). It doesn’t take lengthy to see just how they execute — and in one an important case nothing — align, perfectly but unpredictably, v the earlier cast. Concerned Kate is now a bossy gastroenterologist; Addie has actually made a job of fantasy play as a tv actress. What Carl the dog came to be I leaving for you come discover.

But those are simply the incidental pleasures that a play that wears its comedy favor spandex, revealing an ext than it hides. Together we take in what has happened to the Conlees, we sense the scope broadening from a miniature portrait of children coping v the adult people to a much larger canvas ~ above which adults forever continue to be the children they as soon as were.

For Addie, who told her doll no to mental grown-ups since they “aren’t genuine anyway,” this determinism is devastating. “It’s impossible to do something girlfriend never had actually modeled for you,” she says.


Ms. Wohl provides counter-evidence: together an adult, Carl does talk — in a way. Yet the in its entirety pattern that the pat tips toward despair, seeing households as Rube Goldberg contraptions because that the deliver of neurosis. Society too: turning always from one extreme to another. (If the Conlees to be severely underparented, today’s children “can’t carry a nut everywhere near a college anymore because somebody can die.”) In searching for the self, everyone is hurtfully selfish.

If the sounds dark — and it is — the pat somehow remains gorgeously irradiate at the very same time. The exhilaration is part of that, particularly from the adults; all four are expert, and Ms. Flood rather brilliant, at navigating the space where comedy and also tragedy muddle.

Likewise, Mr. Greif’s direction exploits every chance to amp up the theatricality that what can be, in less confident hands, a more heavier slog. No he nor his team — particularly Mr. Zinn and the bright designer, Ben Stanton — forget the value of pleasing the audience with surprise.

But what ultimately makes “Make Believe” a profound joy is the it to know what the is and refuses to tell you. What at very first seemed random proves no to be; the a really tight package, and component of the intensity of the endure is trying come peel the wrappings.

Ultimately, girlfriend can’t. All you have the right to do is laugh and cry and accept the mystery. Plays, favor people, “Make Believe” appears to say, are consisted of of things it’s sometimes much better not to know.

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Make Believe

Tickets through Sept. 15 at the Tony Kiser Theater, Manhattan; 212-246-4422, 2st.com. To run time: 1 hour 20 minutes.