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The Trees

Theatre Review by Marc Miller - March 5, 2023

Crystal Dickinson and Jess Barbagallo
Photo by Chelcie Parry
To get a firmer handle on what Agnes Borinsky is up to with her utterly incomprehensible The Trees, we might begin with the author's program note. "Plots are a bit ridiculous," she writes (and this one sure is). "Just like malls are a bit ridiculous. But they're part of the landscape of what we do, and anyway sometimes you have to swing by the Apple Store. Maybe the word for it is dancing. We dance between the darkness and the light, between the catastrophe and the errand, between the giggle and the sob."

There's plenty of such dancing in The Trees, much of it involving, yes, a mall, but it all unfolds in an environment of absurdity, mixed with small interpersonal dramas that don't go much of anywhere and remain somewhat out of focus. The puzzlement begins at once: We're in a park, but Parker Lutz has designed what looks like a colosseum, with pillars (a couple of which eventually lift off the floor and rise toward the wings, to some mystifying purpose). A private home looms on a hill above. David (Jess Barbagallo) and Sheila (Crystal Dickinson) live there, having inherited it from their well-to-do father, and failing to locate the key, they venture down to the park, where they plant their feet in the ground, and those feet stay there. They even grow, obvious-metaphor alert, roots. David and Sheila are turning into trees.

And after some initial panic, the sibs welcome their woodsy lot. What's so bad about being a tree? "Nothing happens, that's the beauty of it," says Sheila, and she's righter than she knows. Never mind the practical considerations, and perhaps I'm being over-literal here: How do they eat, sleep, piss, or cope with the rain or snow or cold (we're in Connecticut)? Turning into vegetation allows them plenty of time to volley observations back and forth about life and love and climate and capitalism. Are they lonely? At times, but less and less, what with the improbable number of visitors constituting the rather large cast.

Among them: their grandmother (Danusia Trevino), who apparently has lived many lives and been many things, and who exists to make long speeches in Polish that mostly don't get translated. And Jared (Sean Donovan), David's annoying soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, who's some sort of local official and is in cahoots with Terry (Sam Breslin Wright), who first loudly hawks potato chips and water, then somehow gains grasp of this land and plans to tear down the park and build a mall around David and Sheila as they branch out. (Does anybody build malls anymore?) And Julian (Nile Harris), a teenage would-be artist who just wanders in, eventually dragging in Tavish (Pauli Pontrelli), his own boyfriend of few words. Then there's Saul (Max Gordon Moore), a rabbi from Cleveland who falls in love with Sheila, roots and all, and eventually fathers a child with her, the logistics of which make me squirm. And Norman (Ray Anthony Thomas), whom we first hear offstage, when he thinks he's a bush; he then joins the onstage party, where he yearns for a younger partner and starts to think maybe he's a lake. And Charlotte (Becky Yamamoto), who's Sheila's best friend, then isn't, then is again. And, near the end, Sheryl (Marcia Debonis), a member of Saul's congregation who just lost her father and bakes great cookies. Sheryl spouts well-wrought observations about grief and loss and soldiering on, and I'd much rather see a play about her.

Most of what follows is about whether the mall gets built or not; Terry's all for it and David equivocates, but everybody else is dead set against it. Other things happen: Wolves and an enormous spider appear, to no effect. There's also an offstage fire, persuasively lit by Thomas Dunn, and a riot of blue and pink and orange and purple costumes by Enver Chakartash, though what all that colorfulness represents I've no idea. Borinsky's point is ... the spontaneous communities that can spring up in the face of adversity? The increasing concern for natural devastation and what it does to people? The need to fight the construction of needless shopping malls? All of the above. None. Whatever.

There's a lot of gay onstage–David, Julian, Tavish, Jared, and Norman, not to mention Terry's two unseen moms–but, beyond the implication that this community tends to lust and sleep around a lot, Borinsky hasn't anything in particular to say about it. A couple of characters appear to have had rotten dads, which may or may not be a sub-theme. There's also some mysterious direction, by Tina Satter, that puts David and Sheila on elevator platforms that rise and fall to place them anywhere from full-view to head-only, to signify ... you've lost me again.

Many in the audience, I hasten to add, seemed to enjoy themselves plenty, laughing at lines I didn't find funny and perhaps being moved by the plight of these two unremarkable siblings thrust into an impossible transmogrification, and their ultimate acceptance of it. The brother-and-sister squabbling does sound convincing, and some of the actors–Yamamoto's quick-tongued Charlotte, Thomas's sad, quietly philosophical Norman, Wright's out-for-a-buck Terry–do manage to make strong impressions with material that, at best, feels like a Jell-O mold that didn't quite set. Maybe The Trees will be poplar; a good many seemed to find it more than oaky-doke. To which I say, lucky for yew. Me, I'm stumped.

The Trees
Through March 19, 2023
Playwrights Horizons Mainstage Theater
416 West 42nd Street, New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: