Call it the Great Gunder-splosion of 2013. And 2014. San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson has taken over the local theater scene with more productions than you can shake a dramaturg at. Only last week she opened The Taming with Crowded Fire Theatre Company (see my review here), and here she here is, barely a week later, with another world premiere, I and You with Marin Theatre Company (like The Taming, I and You is part of the National New Play Network and will receive several more productions as part of what they call a “rolling world premiere”).
Here’s what these two plays have in common: they both take place primarily in confined places – one’s in a hotel room, the other in a teenager’s bedroom – and both make surprising diversions (in time and space) out of that confined space. External factors also loom large. One play tackles the American Constitution, while the other wrestles with youth and mortality as reflected in the poetry of Walt Whitman. Those comparisons aside, these are two very different plays that share an abundance of intelligence, ambition and humor – all Gunderson hallmarks.
I and You is an intimate play about the exuberance of youth and all it entails, from the crazy mood swings from hope to despair to the identification with the wider world (the poetry of Whitman, the music of John Coltrane, etc.). It’s about connection and individuality, and it seems to be an enthusiastic after-school special that reveals itself to be a little deeper.
On an ultra-realistic bedroom set (by Michael Locher), director Sarah Rasmussen creates an isolated world ruled by Caroline (Jessica Lynn Caroll), a high schooler who hasn’t spent much time in high school because she’s dealing with some sort of serious illness. When she wants something, she texts her mom in another part of the house. But this room, which she describes as a “giant collage,” is the finite world over which she has control. She takes photos with her phone of sharp details within this world, and she uses her laptop as her primary means of connection with the outside world.
At the start of the play, Caroline’s world has been invaded by a stranger, classmate Anthony (Devion McArthur) who has volunteered to work with Caroline on an English literature assignment involving Whitman’s use of pronouns I and you in his “Song of Myself.” Caroline is, to say the least, resistant to Anthony’s presence and to the notion of exploring Whitman’s poem.
But Anthony is charming, and for whatever reason he feels a strong connection with Caroline even though they’re incredible different. She’s a sick but defiant shut-in and he’s a popular athlete. His enthusiasm for Whitman soon rubs off on Caroline, and a friendship is struck. Their affection for Whitman is quite disarming, and like those schoolboys in Dead Poets Society who also found kinship with the poet, it’s easy to see why Whitman appeals:
I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
Although Carroll and McArthur create believable (if hyper-smart and well spoken) teenagers, there’s a certain disconnect from reality in Caroline’s room – is all of this really happening in such a short timespan? why exactly is Anthony the one who ends up at Caroline’s house? why is Caroline’s mother so absent when there’s a strange boy in her daughter’s room? – and before the 85-minute play is done, the reason for that becomes more clear.
I and You is a sweet play without being sappy (except maybe when the stars come out in Caroline’s room) but somehow there’s not enough weight to it – to Caroline’s illness, to Anthony’s reason for just showing up. Whitman provides a poetic, energizing anchor to the show, but even that feels more on the surface than deeply felt. We’re talking a lot about life and death here, but though we like these teenagers, we don’t feel a strong connection with what’s going on in their lives. There’s a cloud of mystery obscuring our view of them. Maybe that’s why the last section of the play, which should bring some real emotional heft, ends up being more interesting than it is engaging.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Lauren Gunderson’s I and You continues through Nov. 3 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley. Tickets are $37-$53. Call 415-388-5208 or visit www.marintheatre.org.