In a Word

Theater, Drama
3 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw

Playwright Lauren Yee has won or been nominated for several prizes for her oddball drama In a Word, a farcical riff on the Dead Child scenario. The acclaim makes sense. Yee's writing has a glittery, jittery sensibility: Even when the topic is horrific, she makes sideways puns, then jams theatrically on the phrase's mutated form. (A “leave of absence” mutates into a “tree of absence”; the tree of absence is an actual mossy lump given by a principal to a teacher he thinks could use a break.) This makes her fast-paced play feel like a kids' theater show about child abduction, and the bleakness of a joke that dark doesn't fade for the show's 75 minutes.

But In a Word’s success also points to how neatly it fits into a currently stylish mode. Fiona (Laura Ramadei) and husband Guy (Jose Joaquin Perez) are two years into mourning their missing child; the show takes us into flashbacks of the day Tristan (Justin Mark) was taken. You'd be forgiven for thinking you've seen this show already: The Dead Child plot has become a familiar way to give a woman a dramatic arc through guilt and grief. (It must be crowded in that rabbit hole by now.) And Yee's language games come hard on the heels of similar strategies by writers like Christina Masciotti, Ariel Stess and Jenny Schwartz. Yee has chops, but she has trouble here in making something that doesn't seem like an echo of plays that have gone before.

In a Word does boast some genuinely fresh moments—particularly the first one, when a random stranger (Mark again) cheerfully informs a grocery shopping Fiona that he's her son's kidnapper. It's genuinely disorienting, a hint at a creative mind that's frantically on the boil. Less strong are the scenes that follow between Fiona and Guy as they bicker over her path to closure: Perez just yells at Ramadei, and we're given enough time to wonder why she hasn't left him. What saves the day is Yee's demand that the whole thing be played at warp speed, which director Tyne Rafaeli accomplishes with wit and panache. The gifted Mark plays a half-dozen characters; thanks to a revolving wall, a well-greased door and some accommodating bookcases, he can whiz in from any direction. (Oona Curley designed the flexible set.) It's our good fortune that Mark, fresh-faced as an Eagle Scout, keeps popping out of the props. Yee wanted to make a show about the protean, ever-changing word. Mark is that kind of word made flesh.

Cherry Lane Studio Theater (Off-Off Broadway). By Lauren Yee. Directed by Tyne Rafaeli. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 15minutes. No intermission. Through July 8.

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