MadLab’s And Then They Fell Falls More Than It Flies
MadLab continues their season of new work with Tira Palmquist’s And Then They Fell directed by Anne Diehl (and assisted by Tamara Boeck). Sensitive direction and strong acting try mightily but can’t overcome basic weaknesses in the material.
And Then They Fell follows Jordan (Erynn Robe), a 17-year-old in an unnamed Western city. Her mother languishes in court-mandated rehab (called detox but 28 days) for a DUI, not her first. Jordan finds this out days later when her Mother’s creepy ex-boyfriend Dwayne (Scott Douglas Wilson) returns to take care of her. Or, grabbing his crotch, “take care of each other.” Desperate for escape and battling hopelessness, Jordan befriends an old classmate, Cal (Jay Stonerook) struggling with their new trans identity. Charles Wright (Chorus 1) and Emma Farrenkopf (Chorus 2) play every adult other than Dwayne.
The best parts of And Then They Fell center on Jordan and Jay’s relationship. Robe and Stonerook find a real chemistry, lovely and tentative. We root for them immediately and not only because of the deck stacked against them. The twinned desperations vibrate strongest together with Stonerook’s Cal channeling theirs into swagger and rage, as in a sweet moment when they introduce her to ’90s industrial-metal band Rammstein.
Robe also hints at a weirder, more interesting play when her character slips into dreamy reveries about thousands of birds mysteriously dying around the world with “internal injuries like they’ve been pummeled.” That central metaphor is great. I wanted more tension of that unexplained thing that could be a beacon to leave their shrinking world (orbiting a phenomenal, shifting set that doesn’t list a scenic designer in the program) dangles hope they’ll hit the road. It also underlines the lack of imagination as the audience realizes the tragedy dropping on the character’s heads is what the play telegraphed for the last hour.
Palmquist has more feeling for the children than the adults. Everyone over the age of 21 is an ugly cartoon. Wilson’s Dwayne came from a “bad stepfather” after-school special even as he plays the character with more nuance than is on the page. At his best, he downplays the obvious telegraphing, not easy with sequences like visiting Jordan’s mother that’s an exercise in what Chekov’s gun on the mantle meant.
Wright and Farrenkopf have the hardest job here as the rest of the rogue’s gallery of betrayers and sell-outs. They breathe life into these reminders that there’s nothing in And Then They Fell we haven’t seen before ad nauseam. We meet a sassy Latina janitor breaking the rules to let Jordan in the locker room to shower, a sassy drag queen waitress at the diner and venal, narcissistic millennial-parodies at Cal’s squat. It’s to their credit they make these characters as real as they do. Farrenkopf plants Jordan’s mother in a physical reality that gets the sad, brokenness the words can’t manage and throws some much-needed wry lightness where it’s appropriate. Wright has to get lines like “I just can’t square this” or “you’re smarter than the lumps in this place” across with a straight face and he sticks the landing.
And Then They Fell frustrates more often than it does anything else. It stops short right as it leans over the precipice of real humanity. It hammers the audience over the head when the point got across long ago. Ultimately, the first 75 minutes of its 90 feel like the prologue for a story where things happen before an abrupt ending like a series of cliche-dominoes falling. But you’ll see dazzling flashes of what this cast and director could have done with these themes if they had a play that dared to go beneath the skin.
And Then They Fell runs through October 21 with performances at 8:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For tickets and more info, visit madlab.net.