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Yale grad's play stretches credibility and sympathy in off-Broadway premiere

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"The Clearing" at the Theatre at St.Clements

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Playwright Jake Jeppson pushes his new theatrical piece “The Clearing” close to the edge several times over the course of the work’s intermissionless 100 minutes, reducing the play’s credibility and making it virtually impossible to feel much sympathy for the family that lies its odd, tormented center.

It’s clear that the playwright, a graduate of the MFA Playwriting Program at the Yale School of Drama in New Haven, is attempting to present a broad-based family saga in which secrets from the past threaten to jeopardize relationships in the present. On the surface, at least, “The Clearing” does offer some initial promise, but as we gradually get to know the characters a little better, some contentious plot holes begin to develop that aggravate the patience of some of the more literal-minded members of the audience.

Now playing at the Theatre at St. Clements in New York City through February 9, the plot unravels at first in reverse order, beginning at what the erstwhile narrator, Peter, refers to as “yesterday” and extends back almost a year before settling down to “today.” Jeppson handles this format quite handily and, as a result, the story is quite easy to follow as many of our questions get answered as the scenes move back in time. Is it absolutely necessary for Jeppson to present his play in this manner? If presented in standard chronological order, the play would probably lack the suspense that is created by leaving the audience in the dark regarding certain situations. Otherwise, this gimmick doesn’t seem justified by what subsequently happens in the play, unlike say the situation in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal” in which the reverse chronology heightens the irony within the romantic triangle at its core and sheds growing light on the relationship between the characters.

Now that we’re on the subject, Jeppson’s title is justifiably filled with irony. Yes, “The Clearing” does refer to an actual clearing in the woods that functions as the basic set for the play, but there’s nothing clear at all about what is happening there nor have the characters been clear about what happened there some 20 years ago. Even in Daniel Zimmerman’s very fine set design, the clearing atop a mountain in the woods is not what keeps drawing one’s attention during the play. Instead, there’s a cliff overlooking a deep gorge toward the back of the stage that offers several plays’ worth of foreshadowing, along with some humor as the characters play with echoes and postulate graphically about what would happen in a person’s mind should they find themselves falling from the promontory.

Jeppson has indeed adapted Anton Chekhov’s admonition that if you introduce a gun early in your play it better go off by the end. In this case, it’s obviously the cliff and the playwright fulfills our worst expectations.

His plot focuses on the two Ellis brother, both in their late twenties. We meet them first at the titular clearing trying to see who can throw a stone the furthest over the gorge. Their game immediately takes on ominous overtones, with one suggesting that the loser must jump from the aforementioned cliff, and other suggesting that the loser would need to tell their mother, a prospect that clearly terrifies both. Brian McManamon plays the younger brother Les as intelligent and well-spoken, yet simultaneously mousy, quiet and taciturn. Brian P. Murphy imbues older brother Chris with a sense of menace that he attempts to disguise with jocularity. As Murphy makes clear, Chris is suffering from some form of arrested development as well as being haunted by a significant, horrifying event that occurred a number of years ago, which also impacted his brother as well.

In Allison Daugherty’s very brave performance, mother Ella comes across as a mournful widow who has made reluctant peace with her situation. She misses having her sons around on a regular basis and wishes they would keep in contact more frequently. She clings to personal traditions such as cooking and church, but is nonetheless very open minded about Les’s new boyfriend, Peter, a freelance photographer played by Gene Gallerano, with whom she develops a close friendship. In fact, Peter eventually literally coaxes Ella out of her personal shell to pose for a series of revealing photographs, which tends to dispel at least for the audience her two sons’ evaluation of her personality.

And that’s where some of the more egregious plot holes come into play. Ella is not the basket case that her sons want to protect nor does she seem to be the fool who would handle an incident involving the mysteriously-referenced Daniel the way she did twenty-some odd years ago. It also strains credibility to imagine that the brothers could hide a secret for that length of time, or even to make the decision to do so, despite the fact that they were children. One can spot some of the plot developments that Jeppson has had to employ in order to accommodate his desired denouement. Making Peter a photographer, for example, assures that the character values vistas over potential obstacles, and providing Chris with an off-stage former girlfriend further undergirds the older sibling’s instability.

In the end, it’s hard to believe that Les would so easily revert to an easy banter with his brother or allow Chris to remain behind with his mother. There are too many portents for someone supposedly as intelligent and caring as Les to simply ignore. Whether it was the playwright’s intent or not, it’s hard not to suspect that the revelation about the life-changing incident didn’t exactly happen as ultimately described, that there wasn’t some more active participation by one of the brothers. The playwright also seemingly wants us to be moved by the last scene which represents some sort of breakthrough between two of the characters, but since Jeppson has pulled the rug out from under the audience’s sympathies by that point, that scene is more aggravating than merely disappointing. He leaves us dangling with a most horrible taste in our mouths.

The production has been directed with obvious care and respect by Josh Hecht, who has strived to keep the action as realistic as possible. He's obtained high quality performances from his cast and assured that the various characterizations continue to build despite the odd chronology of the work. In particular, he's helped Gallerano's Peter to particularly register with the audience and has allowed the audience to access Peter's emotions, something that the plot prevents happening with most of the other characters. Hecht manages to maintain a momentum even during the many location changes, accomplished by quick blackouts and the sometime difficult movement of on-stage props.

Lighting designer Gertjan Houben certainly got a work out preparing for this production, as changes in lighting are used to cue changes in location as well as depict the clearing at various times of day and night. Sam Kusnetz has provided an original score which helps cover up some of the awkward scene changes in which cast members and tech crew rearrange logs and chairs to accommodate various locations out of doors and within the Ellis household. His sound design also neatly captures the faint sounds of the forest, including the distant thud of landing rocks.

As “The Clearing” headed toward its unrewarding end, I abruptly thought of Ira Levin’s play “Veronica’s Room” in which some characters enact a horrifying, alienating bit of business not long before the final scene. That action had the unnerving effect of throwing off the audience, who were then left with only the ingenuity of Levin’s plotting to admire, despite its dark and shocking intentions. Unfortunately, Jeppson’s plotting is more transparent and not completely credible. What Jeppson does offer is a talent for creating some interesting characters, as demonstrated by the interactions between Les and Peter, the latter who remains the only truly sympathetic character by the end.

For information and tickets, visit the show’s website at www.TheClearingPlayNYC.com. The box office at the Theatre at St. Clements, 423 W.46th Street, in Manhattan, is only open one hour before curtain times, which are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m.

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