Gunderson Play at Next Act is Too Much Like an After School Special

Ibraheem Farmer and Cristina Panfilio in “I and You “at Next Act

The story of the boy from one neighborhood and the girl from another has long been the fodder for movies and plays and television shows.

Go back to “Cinderella” or, indeed, “Dirty Dancing” and you can see the attraction of the tales of young love developing from the most unexpected places.

That’s the problem with the play “I and You” by respected playwright Lauren Gunderson that is getting a great production at Next Act Theatre.

For 88 minutes of this 90ish minute play you might well be wondering to yourself what is so special about this play, which is among a raft of stories written by Gunderson. Since 2001 she has written 20 plays and is said to be the most produced living American playwright.

Next Act opened its season with her “Silent Sky,” a brilliant and and riveting production that examined the battle for women to participate and be successful in a man’s world.

The power and importance of that play is the polar opposite of “I and You” that seem to be an almost artificial confluence of polar opposites.

You have two high school seniors, Caroline (Cristina Panfilio) and Anthony (Ibraheem Farmer).

He’s black, loves poetry and Coltrane, plays basketball is worried about his grades and lives with a comforting nuclear family. She’s white, never reads poetry, loves Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis, is stuck in her bedroom waiting for a liver transplant that may save her life, takes classes remotely and has a helicopter mother and a recently moved out father.

Anthony, previously unknown to Caroline, shows up surprisingly in her bedroom, complete with a kindergarten-like poster to accompany a report on Walt Whitman and his “Leaves of Grass.”  He has been paired with Caroline to do the report, which comes as a shock to her. Her mother has sent him to her daughter’s room as the report, and the accompanying poster exhibit, need to be turned in the next day.

He is met with a mixture of fear and anger and disgust when he just shows up in her room. Caroline hints and the volcano that lurks beneath her surface. Her explosions are met with both calm and exasperation by Anthony.

From then on it’s a series of little steps that bring them closer together.

Anthony: “Why are you so impossible?”

Caroline: “Because impossible makes a shitty life fun.”

Then…

Anthony: “How do you hate poetry?”

Caroline: “With verve.”

Then…

Anthony (reading from poem): This the touch of my lips to yours, this the murmur of yearning.”

Caroline: (She sinks into thought and has the first shudder of her own yearning and erotic spasm).

Then….

Caroline: Rules 1 through 4500. “Don’t be nice to me.”

Then….

Anthony: “I can’t pity you. I don’t even know you.”

Any good play develops its own sense of momentum, and this one is no exception. But instead of momentum covering new grounds this one seems to be running on a treadmill. It’s very funny in parts, but the humor seems almost like a series of disconnected jokes rather than something that moves the story along.

There are no “Oh, my God” moments in the first 88 minutes. Instead the initial schism between these two dwindles until that moment she gives him a peck on the check and he pauses before returning the kiss right on the lips.

Once we recover from the manipulation of this kiss, Ms. Gunderson throws a wicked curveball at us. But this is really a hanging curve destined to be hit for a home run by anyone who has paid attention through the previous 88 minutes.

Ms. Panifilio leads a heroic effort to try and rescue the play from the Disney produced after school special on the CW network.

She is a member of the Acting Company at American Players and has become one of my favorite actors in the state. Her turn last summer as Puck in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was one of those memorable performances you wish you could see over and over again.

Here she finds a range of emotion and expression that runs from the extreme of elation over “Great Balls of Fire,” complete with wild dance and air piano to a collapse on her bed in pain when she overdoes it. She is an actor of both great skill, character depth and attractiveness that it’s hard to take my eyes off her.

Mr. Farmer is burdened by the fact that he looks years younger than Ms. Panfilio. It’s hard to grasp that they are both high school seniors. No disrespect to Ms. Panfilion  here but her experience on stage shows.

Mr. Farmer has attraction to match but he doesn’t seem to have much depth until the near end of the play, and then he’s saddled with a script that seems more like a marathon binging of “The Young and the Restless” on a weekday afternoon than it does surprising and meaningful tale of kids being something more than kids.

While this play may have pretense to an ineffable search for connection between people it is more of a sentimental slog through an hour and a half of two kids who are only a little bit as interesting or surprising as  a couple as they are as individuals.

Production Credits: Director, David Cecsarini; Scenic Design, Rick Rasmussen; Lighting Design, Mike Van Dreser; Costume Design, Lyndsey Kuhlmann; Sound Design, David Cecsarini; Properties Design, Heidi Salter and Shannon Sloan-Spice; Stage Manager, Jessica Connelly; Production Photos, Ross E. Zentner. 

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About davebegel@gmail.com

Theater Critic in Milwaukee.
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