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I'll Never Love Again (a chamber piece): Theater review by Helen Shaw
The set for the first act of Clare Barron's radically candid I'll Never Love Again is a wall plastered in images. It looks like the inside of a high-school locker: magazine pages, stick-on stars and scribbled drawings all jumbled in découpage chaos. It’s a deep dive into the teenage mind. At one point, we even see pages from Barron's childhood diaries, full of weird splayed bodies and hazily understood penises. The final scrawl is a hand and foot emerging from a vagina. Do you remember being 16? Then buckle up.
Barron is a sharp, clear, virtuosic voice in the neorealist movement downtown. We already knew from the Obie Award–winning You Got Older that she can write sparkling tragicomedy. We knew from her surreal thriller Baby Screams Miracle that she sees the world as a dark, even furious place. I'll Never Love Again is something else, though, a structurally adventurous fugue that moves through iterations of theatricalized confession. The theme is Barron's awakening sexuality; at one point, she uses her body as an instrument. Her variations on this theme move from genre to genre with a kind of dramaturgical drunkenness. Our minds reel in sympathy, which makes puberty itself seem weirdly contagious.
In the first section, a robed choir collectively relates Barron's memories of her sophomore year love. A senior named Josh stirs young Clare's passions (“A combination of his sweat and cologne gave me a rash on my forearm”), but also awakens a deep body-hatred and a terror of losing herself. She—or rather the choir as “Clare”—tells us all the details of their courtship, including the way their breakup destroyed her. (Some will recognize shades of Nature Theater of Oklahoma's Life and Times here.) Music director Kailey Marshall conducts from an onstage piano with anguished excitement: The movement's climax involves a dozen choir members shout-singing “I'm dying!” and throwing themselves to the ground. The whole thing is so recognizably goofy and overheated and adolescent, it's in danger of turning sweet.
When the show shifts, though, any hint of sentimentality drops abruptly away. In the second movement, Barron plays her younger self in an intimate experience, and the scene is almost unwatchably raw. Boundaries between drama and life itself suddenly shift—“Clare” is now the real Clare, who is hooking up with Paul Cameron Hardy, who just happens to have been a real boyfriend from Clare's high school. Barron is trembling, nearly crying. Were we laughing at teenage love before? Not anymore.
The third movement changes gears again. Carolyn Mraz's marvelous set undergoes a total transformation to thrust us into the life of a now-adult Clare (Nana Mensah), and Barron's play transitions to realistic comedy. All too briefly, we spend time in a law firm's break room with Amanda (Kate Benson) and Roger (a superb Richard Toth), who casually admit to their own traumas. “Why did I tell you that?” asks Roger after confessing something terribly sad. “Ah well,” he shrugs, “Something to say.”
Director Michael Leibenluft is as comfortable steering naturalism as zany musical postmodernism, and as the three movements lock solidly together, they assemble into a kind of machine for empathy. Barron uses the tingling embarrassment of actual confession to teach us to watch the conventional scene with heightened senses; we're shaken from our usual attitudes toward theatrical playacting. The work uses “the real” to do something subversive inside of realism itself, which is an elegant trick indeed. By the time Barron deploys her final gesture—one last “true” thing that breaks your heart—we're exhausted. If only we can return to the outside world, where things don't feel quite so intense.—Helen Shaw
Bushwick Starr (Off-Off Broadway). By Clare Barron. Directed by Michael Leibenluft. Music by Stephanie Johnstone. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 25mins. No intermission.