Meet the brother and sister who literally become ‘The Trees’
The Daily Beast
March 5, 2023
In Agnes Borinsky’s surreal and compelling “The Trees” two siblings become trees, as a new community forms around them. Plus, the soapy “Elyria,” and “The Best We Could.”
A sister and brother—somewhere in Connecticut, in a time stipulated by The Trees playwright Agnes Borinsky as “now or soon”—are a little drunk after attending a party. On Parker Lutz’s plain white stage, with its classical-harking columns and multiple ledges, Sheila (Crystal Dickinson), the sister, takes a tumble and David (Jess Barbagallo) follows her. She can’t find the keys to their house, signified by a door we can see.
There is an element of fairytale absurdity or an unreality about them and this play (Playwrights Horizons, co-produced by Page 73 Productions, to March 19) and its all-white setting which is allegedly the middle of the countryside. Sheila says she doesn’t want to sleep in “the little bed.” David says she can join him in “the big bed.” The tone is one of innocence rather than incest, yet their closeness is pronounced. She is Black, he is white.
And then, just as in a fairytale, night falls and something mysterious and inexplicable happens in the darkness. As day breaks, they cannot move their feet. Their toes have become roots. They have become trees, or humans who can speak and do everything else as usual bar move—because their toes have become roots and they are rooted to the ground. They don’t seem that freaked out by it. Their worries are, as in any unpredictable delay, about missed flights and appointments. Thankfully, they do have little seats to perch on, and seasonally appropriate clothing—they are still human, despite their roots now being below ground.
Surreally framed theater can play—and be received—pretty much two ways. It can either be off-puttingly obtuse, laughable and pretentious, or it can take the kernel of its absurdity and make something genuinely fascinating out of it, and something, most importantly, an audience will buy into and be intrigued by. The Trees, thankfully, accords to the latter principle; Borinsky, director Tina Satter—who had a huge success with Reality Winner drama Is This A Room on stage, and whose film of the same name will soon be released—and the talented and engaging cast master cogently and mischievously illuminate the text. Wonderful, kooky costumes are by Enver Chakartash and lighting by Thomas Dunn.
Instead of The Trees being simply a comedy drama about two people in an impossible situation, which it partly is, The Trees is also a celebration of community, as more and more people gather around Sheila and David, first to help, and then as kind of unmoving avatars or anchors of a new way of living.
The world we are in seems suspended in its own reality. A vendor (Sam Breslin Wright) sells everything from his cart, though his occasional incantations—“Pretzels, chips”—reminded this critic of Julie Andrews’ “Feed the Birds” in Mary Poppins: “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag/Tuppence, tuppence, tuppence a bag.” It turns out he is also behind plans to build a mall, and what this mall might mean and when will it ever be built becomes a recurring theme.
We are in not a just a nameless place, but a timeless-feeling one too. A Polish grandmother (Danusia Trevino) keeps a protective eye on the siblings, speaks Polish, and worries about “spiritual parasites.”
A man called Julian (Nile Harris) drops by to see what all the fuss is about, and then Jared (Sean Donovan, very much enjoying playing wide-eyed and over the top), David’s ex shows up. Imagine having your relationship and character raked over by your ex where you are rooted to the spot, unable to move. You can imagine David’s stricken expression—which, as the play continues, distinguishes him from his sister. As normal life bubbles around them, his silent scream that they have both become trees is a constant. Norman (Ray Anthony Thomas), who is concealed in the bushes for some time seems nice.
Saul (Max Gordon Moore) is a rabbi from Cleveland, who has come because he thinks what has happened to the siblings is a miracle. Wolves suddenly appear (the puppets are by Amanda Villalobos). Charlotte (Becky Yamamoto) is Sheila’s best friend, and infuriatingly self-absorbed—making everything about Sheila’s plight about her.
As winter turns to spring, the community coalesces around the still-rooted twins, as it contemplates what to do about the mall, and how to formalize their own mini-society. Seven years later a woman called Sheryl (Marcia Debonis) has joined the group, maker of divine cookies. Sheila has not only had a relationship while being a tree, but also a child Ezra (Xander Fenyes), who, you realize, must have been conceived in front of his uncle.
Not all in The Trees coheres, there really isn’t a plot to speak of. Characters appear and disappear around the rooted siblings. But for all its strange vibes and people, there is something so mature and collegial, warm and inviting about The Trees, its puzzles, questions, and ambiguities—and its central teasing proposition of how we might live in any kind of strange new world that might be not so far off. If this play is proven right, it may not be as terrible as we may fear.
Elyria (Atlantic Theater to March 19) is set in the Ohio town of the same name in 1982, and a tangle of secrets and hidden feelings held by members of the city’s Indian community. On one level, Deepa Purohit’s involving play, directed by Awoye Timpo, is a soapy rollercoaster as Vasanta (Nilanjana Bose) and Dhatta (Gulshan Mia) nervily circle each other as manifestations of their younger selves (Mahima Saigal and Avanthika Srinivasan) echo their thoughts as ghostly presences. Bhavesh Patel, as Charu, Dhatta’s husband, is also haunted by the past, and also extremely funny as a harried paterfamilias. A cute though clunky love story blooms between his son Rohan (Mohit Gautam) and college friend Hassanali (Omar Shafiuzzaman).
There is perfect shoulderpad and color block era-nailing fashion by costume designer Sarita Fellows. The staging is also quietly striking; the Atlantic has been filleted out to its bones and reconfigured with a central stage and seating around it. It feels like a totally new space, and the extra room the conception has brought is similarly welcome. The play loses its way slightly with restating its secrets and lies, and not following plot points through to resolution.
Perhaps because it harks to the big emotions of the dramas of that time, while the soapy elements bubble well in Elyria, it ultimately feels flat by not giving us the needed payoffs. A smooth play fluently performed needs a bit more oomph and resolution. A cliffhanger works on TV when another episode is nigh—less so on stage, where the mechanics of setting it up have been in play for over two hours, and where there’s no next episode.
The Best We Could
The Best We Could (Manhattan Theatre Club, City Center, to March 26) again unfolds in a theatrical space excitingly opened up by designer Lael Jellinek to its barest walls. In Emily Feldman’s play, directed by Daniel Aukin, Ella (Aya Cash) and her father Lou (Frank Wood) undertake a familiarly meaning-laden journey across America, with very funny jokes about Mount Rushnore included.
Peg (Constance Shulman), wife/mother provides interjections off stage. Lou’s close friend Marc (Brian D. Coats) is a wise voice, and eventually the bearer of the worst news. Maureen Sebastian plays both narrator and puppetmaster, who locates the characters and tells them how to respond in situations.
This split-storytelling mode is fascinating at the beginning, and grating by the end when the heavy drama of the play emerges—a secret about Lou, ripped from the headlines, sets the family on a new and very tragic course. The play has wit and feeling, but also feels repetitive and confined—as if it cannot decide where exactly to set its stall, ultimately undermining the gravity of its themes and commitment of its cast.